“When Disaster Hits” - August 18, 2019

II Kings 17:5-8, 18-20

 

            The writer of II Kings was very matter-of-fact when he reported the destruction of the kingdom of Israel.

“Then the king of Assyria invaded all the land and came to Samaria; for three years he besieged it.  In the ninth year of Hoshea the king of Assyria captured Samaria; he carried the Israelites away to Assyria.  He placed them in Halah, on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.”  [II Kings 17:5-6]

He also gives a very simplistic explanation for how Israel had gone from one great kingdom under David and Solomon, breaking apart into two kingdoms after Solomon’s death in 922 B.C., and then being swallowed up by the Assyrian Empire two centuries later.

“This occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.  They had worshiped other gods and walked in the customs of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel, and the customs that the kings of Israel had introduced.”  [II Kings 17:7-8]

That left, he said, only the kingdom of Judah, the land around Jerusalem.  That southern kingdom, however, was on the same track and would fall in 150 years to the Babylonians who had taken over the Assyrian Empire by then.

            The people who lived through all of this were not as calm about it nor did they see the reasons as being so cut-and-dry.  We don’t know that directly from the people who were enslaved when Samaria fell, because they were intentionally scattered around the lands to the east.  They disappeared into time.  We refer to them, if at all, as the Lost Tribes of Israel.  Their homeland was resettled by strangers who knew nothing of them nor of the God they worshiped.

            From the people of the southern kingdom, though, we know a great deal.  Some of the northerners had fled south, and had taken with them the record of warnings that had been given to them by prophets like Hosea and Amos, warnings that had been mostly ignored.  To these the southerners had added the words of their own prophets, especially a man named Jeremiah, who was there at the end, when Jerusalem fell the way that Samaria had done.  He had survived because he was carried away by a group of refugees who ran from Jerusalem at the last possible moment, like the von Trappes escaped Austria or Einstein was rescued from Switzerland.

            Jeremiah survived to write a book we now call Lamentations.  It is a brutal description of what happened to Jerusalem and its people, and it puts into words the thoughts and emotions of anyone who has struggled with the disappointment that comes from suffering and who is angry with God.  Hear what he had to say (and this is only part of it):

“We have transgressed and rebelled,

and you have not forgiven. 

You have wrapped yourself with anger and pursued us,

killing without pity; 

you have wrapped yourself with a cloud

so that no prayer can pass through.

You have made us filth and rubbish

among the peoples. 

All our enemies

have opened their mouths against us; 

panic and pitfall have come upon us,

devastation and destruction. 

My eyes flow with rivers of tears

because of the destruction of my people. 

My eyes will flow without ceasing,

without respite, 

until the Lord from heaven

looks down and sees. 

My eyes cause me grief

at the fate of all the young women in my city. 

Those who were my enemies without cause

have hunted me like a bird; 

they flung me alive into a pit

and hurled stones on me; 

water closed over my head;

I said, ‘I am lost.’”  [Lamentations 3:42-54]

 Bitter?  You bet, and with good reason.

            So why keep his words?  Why preserve the thoughts of someone who one minute pays lip-service to the standard explanation for disaster – that somehow the people deserved it – but who really doesn’t accept that and the next moment is accusing God himself of betrayal?  I’ll suggest two reasons.

            First: because it’s honest.  People really feel this way.  If you have never been there, you are truly blessed or truly oblivious.  We all start out with the notion that good actions lead to good results.  Virtue is rewarded and vice is punished.  (With the accompanying belief that says if you are rewarded, you must be on God’s side and if you are not, then you must have done something wrong.)  As you mature, though, you should begin to question that.  Guilty people go free and innocent people do jail time.  There are fights between thugs and bystanders get killed.  Bombs drop on civilians.  People get sick for no reason.  On and on. 

            The second reason is more important.  If you are screaming at God about the unfairness of life and the injustice of the world and the pain people go through, then you are still in relationship with God.  You may be raging, but deep down you have not given up on God and deep down you believe that God has not given up on you.  You believe that there has got to be a reason or an explanation why a God you know is merciful and kind either causes or allows any of this.  It’s in that struggle that the strongest faith is born, because it is the opposite of indifference.  I’m not saying that God intentionally does this to teach us painful lessons – don’t get me wrong.  I’m saying that God can and does bring good things out of the worst, and that he does that just because, when all is said and done, he is God and we are not.

            The one thing I am not saying is that there is one, simple, clear answer.  God is complicated and the world is complicated and we are complicated.  If I cannot understand myself, how can I understand God?  This is not a cop-out.  This is a recognition of reality, which includes human limitation and helplessness.  When tragedy strikes, personal or national or worldwide, that limitation not only becomes obvious, it becomes painful.

            Healing comes with holding on.  The northern kingdom gave up, and was no more.  The southern kingdom held on, and lamented and cried and questioned, and was restored.  It took a generation or more, and the restoration brought a changed and chastened people with lasting scars on their souls, yet they eventually rebuilt their city and their land and found a richer relationship to the God whom they came to know as a Suffering Servant and a Savior as well as a mighty warrior king.

            It works that way across human experience.  William Sloane Coffin, for many years a chaplain at Yale and later the senior pastor of Riverside Church in New York, had a son named Alex who got drunk one night and ended up driving his car off the road into Boston Harbor, where he drowned.  Coffin was desolate.  He wrote,

“The reality of grief is the solitude of pain, the feeling that your heart’s in pieces, your mind’s a blank…”[1]

He writes, though, of another reality that stands next to that one.

“‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Yes, but at least, ‘My God, my God”; and the psalm doesn’t end that way.  As the grief that once seemed unbearable begins to turn now to bearable sorrow, the truths in the ‘right’ [and he puts that in quotation marks] biblical passages are beginning to take hold: ‘Cast thy burden upon the Lord and he shall strengthen thee’; ‘Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning’; ‘Lord, by thy favor thou hast made my mountain to stand strong’; for thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling’; ‘In this world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world’; ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’”[2]


[1] William Sloane Coffin, “Epilogue: Alex’s Death” in The Courage to Love (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), 95.

[2] Ibid., 97-98.

“What Now?” - August 11, 2019

I Kings 13:14-21

The story of Elisha’s death is part of the story of the death of the kingdom of Israel.  Even though the kingdom would hold on for a few more generations (more about that next week), there’s a sense of foreboding that comes with the way Elisha says, “Goodbye,” to King Joash.  

Joash heard that Elisha was terminally ill, and he went to visit.  He fell into tears, and spoke to him the same way that Elisha had cried out when Elijah was taken into heaven, using the same words: 

“My father, my father!  The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!”  [II Kings 13:14]

But Elisha is not swept up in a fiery chariot, and Joash is not the inheritor of his prophetic leadership.  Instead, there is a scene where Elisha seems to be trying to pass his blessing along, as he places his hands on Joash’s and shoots what he calls “the Lord’s arrow of victory” [13:17], but then foretells that under Joash’s leadership it will turn out to be a limited victory, and that it is somehow Joash’s fault. [13:19]  

What’s more, no sooner is Elisha buried than invaders from the land of Moab to the southeast begin what appear to become annual raids on Israel.  During one of those raids, something truly strange happens.

“As a man was being buried, a marauding band was seen and the man was thrown into the grave of Elisha; as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he came to life and stood on his feet.” [II Kings 13:21]

Notice a couple of things about this.  One was that this happened long enough after Elisha’s death that his body had turned to bones.  Another was that this miracle was a one-time event; people didn’t start carrying their recently-deceased Aunt Esther or Uncle Jacob to Elisha’s tomb in expectation of revival.  This wasn’t the discovery of a magic cure-all.  It was a message from the Lord to Israel in the midst of their troubles: if they could touch the bones, the core, of what had held Elisha together, and gave him the strength to hold them together, then they would stand up again.

It was the same message that would come, much later, and in a similar way, when the southern kingdom of Judah had fallen to invaders, and even the city of Jerusalem had been destroyed.  The prophet Ezekiel had a vision:

“The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.  He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.  He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ … Then he said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel.  They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’  Therefore prophesy and say to them, Thus says the Lord God:  I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. …I shall put my spirit within you, and you shall live.’”  [Ezekiel 37:1-3, 11-12, 14]

In time it did happen.  The bare bones of the people, those who survived in captivity in Babylon and Persia and refugees who had fled to Egypt and into the Arabian desert, would in fact find their way back to the land and begin – painfully and against opposition, with some infighting and some fears, but steadily and surely – to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.  Then they rebuilt their Temple.

It was during the same years that they took the words of promise that had been given to them by the prophets and the histories of their ancestors that had been written in books of Kings and in Chronicles of their reigns, along with the stories of their earliest forebears and the laws that they had lived by, and assembled the earliest versions of the scriptures.  They reached out for contact with those who had pointed them to faith and to faithfulness.  As a result, they stood on their feet again.

There would be more disasters, but they had been given tools to survive them.  And anchored by the stories of God’s people and the words of the prophets, there grew an even wider hope.  They heard the promise of a savior, and not just a hero like Samson, a king like David, a judge like Deborah, or a prophet like Jeremiah.  This would be someone who would embody all the hopes and dreams not only of a nation but also of all human beings ever born.

Centuries later, some of the people who were steeped in those scriptures and anchored in the traditions and life of the people of Israel became convinced that that Savior had been born.  They recorded their own accounts of the good news.  They told how he had found them and invited them to go with him.  They had watched him heal and raise the dead, they heard his teachings and saw the glory of God revealed in him when, transfigured, he spoke with Elijah and Moses.  Then his followers watched him, like the entire kingdom of Israel, die at the hands of its own authorities and a foreign occupier.  Once more, repeating the cycle, it was back to the graveyard, and he was hastily buried.  

Only, when they went back to finish the burial properly, they found him – they thought – gone.  That was when he spoke to one of them, who at first thought he was the gardener.  Then he showed up inside a locked room where other followers were hiding in fear.  He was spotted by two men walking on the road, who recognized him as he shared bread with them and then vanished.  Another time he met his friends on the beach.  Later on he spoke from heaven to a man named Saul who was on his way to arrest some of his followers in Damascus and turned his life around one-hundred and eighty degrees.  To each of these people, one way or another, he brought new life and new hope.  He lifted each of them up and set them back on their feet.

Yet all his people rise to find themselves right back in the world as it has been.  The man who stepped out of Elisha’s grave still had to face the marauding parties that were attacking his land.  Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, went right into the arms of his grieving sisters.  Thomas, who doubted Jesus’ resurrection at first, believed when he saw that Jesus’ wounds were real.  To this day, the people he has given new life by his Spirit, find themselves challenged and put in the front lines where the power of God’s love and grace are most needed.  

Fred Pratt Green wrote a hymn about that.  Given new life through the savior who is the way, the truth, and the life, but faced with a world that leads people astray, teaches them to be content with lies, and to be satisfied with the world’s anger and resentment and violence, what do we do now?  

“The church of Christ, in every age 

beset by change but Spirit-led, 

must claim and test its heritage 

and keep on rising from the dead.

Across the world, across the street, 

the victims of injustice cry 

for shelter and for bread to eat, 

and never live until they die.

Then let the servant church arise, 

a caring church that longs to be 

a partner in Christ’s sacrifice, 

and clothed in Christ’s humanity.”

We do what Jesus did, and trust.  We live by faith.  There a power that arises from weakness.  It dies, and falls into the grave, and then it springs to its feet again, because on the edge of the loss of everything, we meet the life that has already overcome death.  As Jesus taught, those who would find their life lose it, and those who lose their life for his sake, find it.







“The Story of Naboth’s Vineyard” - August 4, 2019

II Kings 9:26

            There are parts of the Bible that were not meant to be read in sections but that were written as entire books, and although we can look closely at individual episodes we lose something if we don’t also consider the wider design.  The history books that include the First and Second Books of Kings and Chronicles are like that.  In order to do justice to this series of sermons on II Kings, this morning I’m going to do things a little differently from usual, and instead of one, short reading and a separate sermon, I’m going to sort of combine it all into one longer chunk. 

            Go back to I Kings 21:1-24 and you’ll find this story:

“Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. And Ahab said to Naboth, ‘Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.’ But Naboth said to Ahab, ‘The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.’ Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him; for he had said, “I will not give you my ancestral inheritance.” He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.

 

His wife Jezebel came to him and said, ‘Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?’ He said to her, ‘Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, “Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it”; but he answered, “I will not give you my vineyard.”’

 

His wife Jezebel said to him, ‘Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.’ So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. She wrote in the letters, ‘Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, “You have cursed God and the king.” Then take him out, and stone him to death.’ The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. Just as it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, ‘Naboth cursed God and the king.’ So they took him outside the city, and stoned him to death. Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, ‘Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.’ As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, ‘Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead.’ As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.

 

Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. You shall say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: Have you killed, and also taken possession?’ You shall say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.’ Ahab said to Elijah, ‘Have you found me, O my enemy?’ He answered, ‘I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, I will bring disaster on you; I will consume you, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel; and I will make your house like the house of Jeroboam son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha son of Ahijah, because you have provoked me to anger and have caused Israel to sin. Also concerning Jezebel the Lord said, “The dogs shall eat Jezebel within the bounds of Jezreel.” Anyone belonging to Ahab who dies in the city the dogs shall eat; and anyone of his who dies in the open country the birds of the air shall eat.”’”

            The incident is left there, although the strife between Elijah on one side and Ahab and Jezebel on the other continues.  The history goes on and almost a generation passes.  Elijah trains Elisha to succeed him and is carried away to heaven.  Ahab dies.  Elisha gains respect as a prophet.  Jezebel hangs on as the aging Queen Mother.  The kingdom of Israel is repeatedly invaded, and Elisha helps guide the resistance to the invaders, all the while urging faith in God, while the kings put politics first.

            And a lot of what the Bible records sounds like the usual round of alliances and wars, but we get occasional glimpses of the people who are caught up in them.  Mostly it is the kings and generals, with the prophet Elisha showing up every so often to perform a miracle among the people who, because of these wars, are caught up in famines and shortages.  At one point we hear about a siege that reduces people to cannibalism.  There are reminders that, as the proverb says, when elephants fight the grass gets trampled.

            Then the day comes that Elisha does something out of character for him.  He sends one of his servants to find one of the king’s generals.  The servant calls him out of a meeting and pours oil on his head, announcing that the general, Jehu, is thereby anointed as the new king of Israel, and then runs away.  Jehu reports the incident to his officers, who proclaim him king, and a palace revolution is underway.

            Ahab’s son, Joram, tried to face the rebellion down and his army meets Jehu’s army outside his capital city, on the land where Naboth’s vineyard had once been.  Joram takes an arrow between the shoulders as he is racing his chariot to escape and dies immediately. 

“Jehu said to his aide Bidkar, ‘Lift him out, and throw him on the plot of ground belonging to Naboth the Jezreelite; for remember, when you and I rode side by side behind his father Ahab how the Lord uttered this oracle against him: “For the blood of Naboth and for the blood of his children that I saw yesterday, says the Lord, I swear I will repay you on this very plot of ground.” Now therefore lift him out and throw him on the plot of ground, in accordance with the word of the Lord.’”  [II Kings 9:25-26]

A series of what we would call war crimes follows.  Ahab had seventy other sons, and Jehu arranges for their massacre.  Jezebel is thrown from a window and her body is trampled by horses then eaten by dogs.  Jehu then arranges a festival for all the followers of Baal in Israel and once they’re together in the temple of Baal, he locks them in and slaughters them all.  Jehu ruled Israel for the next twenty-eight years.

            The message is for the powerful and the powerless alike. 

            The injustice of a ruler does not go unnoticed or unseen, even if it is arranged privately and carried off flawlessly and appears on the face of things to be totally legal.  God sees all.  And God has time that we do not.  If human beings call out the wickedness and the ruler denies it, and has the power to go on as if nothing has happened, God remembers.

            But the longer that human beings ignore even one small crime, the more trouble compounds before it is corrected, and the more innocent people become drawn into the vortex.  Those people, too, might be the ones who seem to have benefited from the deed.  It was not God whose decision condemned Ahab’s descendants to bloody executions.  It was Ahab’s establishment of the might-makes-right, I’m-the-king-and-what-I-say-goes atmosphere that laid the groundwork for people like Jehu to kill in their self-interest, the way that Ahab had done.  We are responsible not only for our actions, but for the unknown consequences they carry.

            We see this when we examine the histories of the Old Testament in their whole breadth.  We see that there is an element of tragedy built into things, where we come into a world tainted by the deeds of people long dead.  In our day, we wrestle with the results of the slavery brought to an official end in 1865, but whose effects are all around us, whether we want to see that or not.  And centuries from now the world will judge us for how we conduct ourselves in light of the dangers of changing climate and rising seas begun by decisions made innocently enough long before we were born.  We are embedded in the time that we are born, no less than Elijah and Elisha and the kings and queens of Israel. 

Yet I would suggest looking not only at those histories, but the entirety of the scriptures for one more point that must not be lost. 

We can, if we let ourselves, become trapped in the notion that there is no way out of this running account of injustice, evil, and oppression.  (Let’s just use the shorter word “sin”.)  We can put ourselves into the line of those who explain that our choices are captive to the choices of those before us.  We can push things back and back and back to the primeval sin, that Adam and Eve moment when everything first fell apart and blame them.

            But that’s been dealt with already.  God stepped into human history in a decisive way, and did it within the very people who produced both Naboth and Ahab, Elijah and Jezebel, Elisha and Jehu.  God became subject to all that we face when he was born in the person of Jesus.  He was dispossessed by Herod and the Romans, who took his very life.  And in letting that happen, he destroyed the cycle by not playing into it in the way that even a righteous man like Elisha did.

            Jesus, on the cross, put an end to the power games and the revenge, absorbing all of that and carrying the sin of the world himself in a way that lifts it from us, and leaves us free to put the past behind.  Sometimes it even means we leave the present behind, refusing, like him, to accept anyone’s ways but God’s.  Said Paul,

“If, because of one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” [Romans 5:17]

It’s at the cross that anybody’s old story ends and their new story begins.

 

“An Ambush of Angels” - July 28, 2019

II Kings 6:8-23

 

            English can be a playful language sometimes.  One of those ways shows up in our collective terms.  Here’s a little game to demonstrate.  What do you call a group of…

 

                        Sheep?                         Flock

                        Cattle?                         Herd

                        Dogs?                          Pack

Fish?                            School

                        Lions?                         Pride

                        Crows?                        Murder

                        Penguins?                    Huddle

                        Snails?                         Escargotoire

                        Owls?                          Parliament

                        Salamanders?              Congress

Continuing on those lines, I know that a group of angels may be a choir, but I want to propose that the better term might be “an ambush”.

            This morning’s reading presents part of my reasoning.  It comes from the time when the original kingdom of David and Solomon had split into two countries.  The southern kingdom, Judah, had Jerusalem for its capital.  Samaria was the capital of the northern kingdom, Israel.  When we pick up the story today, we find the Israelite city of Dothan waking up to find itself surrounded by the armies of the King of Aram.  Inside the walls of Dothan was the prophet Elisha who had been targeted for capture.  One of Elisha’s servants panicked as they looked out at the hostile army.

“’Alas, master!  What shall we do?’  He replied, ‘Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.’  Then Elisha prayed: ‘O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.’  So the Lord opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.”  [II Kings 6:15-17]

Thus began one of the oddest battles recorded in the Bible.  The hostile army was struck blind, not dead.  Elisha offered to lead them to safety, and he took them straight to Samaria, where they regained their sight, now surrounded by Israelite soldiers and standing in front of the Israelite king.

            The king’s first instinct was what you would expect, but this was Elisha’s battle, and

“he said, ‘Father, shall I kill them?  Shall I kill them?’  He answered, ‘No!  Did you capture with your sword and your bow those whom you want to kill?  Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink; and let them go to their master.’” [II Kings 6:21-22]

 If they were killed, this would have been just another battle, and just another reason for revenge.  Feeding them put them under obligation as guests who could not lift up a weapon against their host.  Sending them home would let them tell the story – not just one of them, but the whole group – about how Israel’s God was fighting for his people and why you don’t want to mess with him.  That would be effective defense for at least a generation or two.

            The angels had got the jump on them, and they never saw it coming.

            All too often, we believe that we have to fight our own fights alone, and don’t realize that God has placed allies of all sorts at our side.  First and foremost is his own Holy Spirit, who moved across the face of the deep at creation, and by whose presence in the life of a girl named Mary the Son of God came to take on human flesh, and who works in and through all who live by faith in the Son.  But there are others who help, under the Spirit’s guidance.

            The word “angel” simply means “messenger”.  An angel is one who brings us a message from God, whether it’s a word of challenge or comfort or courage.  An angel might be some heavenly creature, some being sent from God directly.  That’s what John Wesley was thinking when he wrote his sermon “Of Good Angels”, where he points out that, as was the experience of Elisha’s servant, God’s help for us is very real and direct but not always visible or simple to identify unless someone opens our eyes to it.  Of such messengers, he says,

“Is it not their first care to minister to our souls?  But we must not expect this will be done with observation; in such a manner, as that we may clearly distinguish their working from the workings of our own minds. We have no more reason to look for this, than for their appearing in a visible shape. Without this, they can, in a thousand ways, apply to our understanding. They may assist us in our search after truth, remove many doubts and difficulties, throw light on what was before dark and obscure, and confirm us in the truth that is after godliness. They may warn us of evil in disguise; and place what is good, in a clear, strong light. They may gently move our will to embrace what is good, and fly from that which is evil. They may, many times, quicken our dull affections, increase our holy hope or filial fear, and assist us more ardently to love Him who has first loved us.”[1]

 In this he stresses, as I would also, that what matters is not so much the messenger, but the message.

             There are people who pay way too much attention to things which are not central to faith.  There is such a thing as superstition, and if someone is surrounding herself or himself with magic medallions or candles or suchlike, and emphasizing angelic presences or heavenly visions or spirits, that is probably walking way too close to idolatry.  In the book of Revelation, John gets a message from God in a vision where an angel speaks to him.  John bows down at his feet and the angel cuts that sort of thing off right away.

 “You must not do that!  I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades who hold the testimony of Jesus.  Worship God!”  [Revelation 19:10]

 A lot of outright pagan practices disguise themselves by claiming connection to angels or saints.  A real angel, instead, will call as little possible attention to itself and as much as possible to God.

             That’s why it isn’t just the armies that confront us that may be ambushed.  We ourselves may be suddenly and unexpectedly shocked by the hidden grace of God that surrounds our lives at even the least dramatic moments, although those may turn out to be the ones that wear us down and where we need backup the most.  A poem written by Gail White is entitled, “Written on the Head of a Pin”.

 “The car breaks down with appalling

regularity.  If I have bronchitis,

three credit cards overdrawn and no love

affair going and the white cat died,

it breaks down just the same.  The

clutch goes, the linkages slip,

it blows a gasket, runs a piston

rod through the engine block. 

Today it’s the brakes, so I’ve done

the shopping on foot.  And feeling

slightly suicidal, I look

around me for signs of hope. 

Now is the time for a messenger. 

Time for a drink and sitting

in the backyard; a good time for any

passing dragonfly, mockingbird, fieldmouse,

or calico cat to say, ‘I am Gabriel. 

I stand in the presence of God.’”

 I remember reading that poem in The Christian Century sometime many years ago and cutting it out, not quite sure why.  I stuck it in a book where I found it this past week and something tells me …  Or maybe I’m just being silly, but …

“The Lord opened the eyes of the servant and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire.”  [II Kings 6:17]


[1] John Wesley, Sermon 71: “Of Good Angels”, II. 2.  http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-71-of-good-angels/

“Faith and Gadgetry” - July 21, 2019

II Kings 6:1-7

            Elisha was apparently associated with several miracles.  Those that involve healing or the deliverance of a nation from invasion we can appreciate.  The one that we have heard about this morning, where he made an ax head float, is just weird.  At best it sounds like some sort of magic trick.  There’s more to it, though, and to get at that I want to tell another story.

            My Aunt Dot worked for the town of Tonawanda, NY for many years.  I am not entirely sure what all she did, but I do know that it involved typing.  It must have involved a lot of typing, because she developed carpal tunnel syndrome from it.  Many years after she retired, she was typing away on a computer keyboard and drinking an orange soda, two activities that don’t always go well together.  First, she spilled the soda onto the keyboard.  Then she grabbed some paper towels and began running them over the keys to soak things up.  Do you know what can happen if you just press on random keys?  It occurred to her that she should maybe unplug it after that, which was a good move considering that the next thing she did was to keep the whole thing from getting sticky was to take a wet dishrag and wipe it all down.  She let it dry but it still felt sticky, so she sprayed everything again with windex before she plugged it in again, only to find that the screen was filled with funny lines and the machine was making odd noises.

            She was not dumb.   Everything that she did would have made sense if she had been using a manual typewriter, or even an electric typewriter – and, yes, there were luxurious IBM Selectric models whose use overlapped with current technology.  My aunt, whose mind was at the start of what would eventually become a profound forgetfulness, had simply begun to revert to the more familiar side of the technological divide that she had lived through.

            The story of Elisha and the floating ax head is hard for us to appreciate fully because it comes to us from a time of even deeper transition.  The situation involves woodcutting, not typing.

“When they came to the Jordan, when they came to the Jordan, they cut down trees.  But as one was felling a log, his ax head fell into the water.”  [II Kings 6:4-5a]

So far, it’s pretty normal.  Anyone who has used an axe knows that they break.  That’s one of those things they taught us in Boy Scouts; never stand near someone using an axe or a hatchet in case the head flies off or the haft, the handle, breaks.  Listen to the woodcutter’s response, though, when that happened here, and the ax head flew into the river.

“He cried out, ‘Alas, master!  It was borrowed.’” [II Kings 6:5b]

Maybe you’ve had to borrow a chainsaw.  When was the last time you had to borrow an ax?  It’s one of the basic tools of survival.  If you were going to build yourself a cabin, it’s one of those things that you would be sure to keep on hand.  The fact that this one was borrowed is a reminder that, as one commentary puts it,

“Whereas axes were relatively inexpensive in modern times, they were not so in ancient Israel, where iron was scarce and, in time of war, largely reserved for military use.”[1]

It wasn’t just that iron ore was scarce.  In the same way that national security leads us to restrict the sharing of certain types of technology, the ability to smelt iron was not general and, in some cases, was controlled knowledge.  A few generations earlier, according to the First Book of Samuel,

“there was no smith to be found throughout all the land of Israel; for the Philistines had said, ‘The Hebrews must not make swords or spears for themselves.’” [I Samuel 13:19]

We are right here at the end of the Bronze Age.  Iron is cutting edge technology. 

A lost ax head is equivalent to having a company’s entire IT system go down.  Since the ax was borrowed, it wasn’t just the user who would feel the loss, but the owner as well, and anyone else who might have benefited from the blade later on.  That’s how these things work.  The summer after I graduated from high school I worked on data entry in the financial aid office at Swarthmore College.  One day a question that I did not quite understand appeared on my screen and since it was a yes-or-no question I figured I had a 50-50 chance and pressed the button for “yes”.  Then the screen froze.  It stayed frozen until the end of the day, when my boss came in holding a pile of paper about two feet thick.  “This,” she said, “is a print-out of the entire financial aid package for every student in the school.”  At that time, they were working on a mainframe and there was one printer for the whole system.  They would call you when your work was done and you could pick it up, which is what she had done.  For most of the day this had been the only document printed on campus, while all the other jobs had waited in line behind it.

We laugh about this stuff.  We get a chuckle when Grandpa puts his milk in the icebox. But not all the effects of changing technology are benign or trivial.  Not all have to do with getting used to new programs or gadgets or terminology.

What happens to people when a new technology is out of reach, like an ax head that is underwater?  Huge social changes come about because of what might be called (at least later on) technical progress.  Some of those changes may be painful to live through and there are people who are just not up to it.  When an old industry slows down or dies out, not everyone can simply move smoothly into another field.  Some are too old and by the time they retrain, no one wants to hire them, or they have financial obligations that they cannot meet on an entry-level wage.  Some do not have the ability to learn whatever the up-and-coming fields require.  Some who would move with the job market are limited by obligations to family.  Others who might be able to overcome all of this face a degree of depression and anxiety too great for them. 

You see some people give up.  Look where you find the greatest trafficking in illegal drugs and you can pretty much track where the changes of our own day have upset the earlier patterns without replacing them with others.  If people are shooting up in abandoned factories and vacant houses, maybe those buildings themselves bear witness to the connection between a lack of meaningful opportunity and drug use.  There are almost stereotypical images that link rural poverty to the establishment of meth labs.  One report from the National Institutes of Health states the obvious:

“In Central Appalachia, focus groups have identified economic disparity, unemployment, and under-education as characteristics that may increase both substance use and treatment failure.”[2]

In other words, when the ax head sinks into the mud, everything else goes along.  Without the tools, you cannot get the work done.

            That’s why it’s imperative not to lose sight of the way that God, through Elisha, made a piece of iron float back up from the bottom of the Jordan river.  That’s the same river where Naaman’s deadly leprosy was cured.  It’s the same river where Jesus would be baptized and the Holy Spirit would settle on him like a dove.  At the direction of Elisha, the man of God, the iron ax blade floated back up to the surface.

“He said, ‘Pick it up.’ So he reached out his hand and took it.” [II Kings 6:7]

More is happening here than a veiled promise that if you just give everything enough time it will all work out.  That is just not true.  There have been many places and many societies and many people who have not been able to steer through times of profound change.  Some have collapsed.  But the same report I just read from about conditions in Central Appalachia goes on almost immediately to say this:

“Characteristics such as strong faith in God, strong family ties, strong sense of pride, and valuing self-sufficiency, on the other hand, may act as preventative factors and help to bolster treatment effectiveness in the region.”

I love it that the first characteristic it identifies as a source of hope, even for people who have gone under in some way, is “strong faith in God”. 

            Change is going to happen.  We are not still living in the Bronze Age.  We don’t just use iron to cut lumber to build homes.  We use steel itself as the framework for skyscrapers and barns alike.  God does not put technological change on hold for us, but does help us negotiate the difficulties that come with it.  Not all change is good, but faith helps us to evaluate the good and the bad, that we may choose wisely and, when there are unintended consequences, respond with compassion and care to the people who get left out or get caught in the middle, because there are a lot of them around.

            Over in Mont Clare on Canal Day last month, I read the history of the old Lock Keeper’s house that sits back behind St. Michael’s playground.  It was built at a time when the Schuylkill Canal was busy.  Someone had to be on call twenty-four hours a day to maintain and run the lock, and sometimes to deal with problems among the barge workers who came through.  Eventually, though, the freight traffic shifted to the railroads, and later to trucking, and the canal closed down.  But no one forced the last lock-keeper, or his sister and nephew who lived with him, to leave the house that was their home.  Change came, but caring was already there, and because of the caring, change brought hardship but not catastrophe.

 

           

 


[1] Choon-Leong Seow in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. III (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), 199.

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5648074/

 

"God and Greed" - July 14, 2019

II Kings 5:15-16, 19-27

            Money itself is not bad.  It is a convenient method of getting things done, and unless you live in a society that works by bartering, money is a necessity of life.  I cannot go up to the window at Dairy Queen and offer the girl at the counter two peppers and a zucchini for a chocolate blizzard.  Using money, a commonly-accepted standard of exchange, makes it possible for us to regulate the relative worth of physical commodities, people’s work, their skills, their time, and so forth.  Whether it is hard currency or credit on the books, quarters or bitcoin, it makes our interactions far simpler and smoother than they would be if we were exchanging a can of sardines for five minutes of internet access.

            The problems start when money becomes a tool for manipulation instead of simplification, for controlling relationships instead of making them easier.  Power and prestige push in.  That doesn’t happen because of money, but it shows up in the way money can be misused.

            Today’s Bible reading picks up on last week’s.  Naaman the Syrian had traveled to Israel to find healing for the leprosy that he contracted.  After some preliminary difficulties centering on his own pride, he finally did as the prophet Elisha directed him and washed seven times in the Jordan River and was cured.  So far so good.

            He went back to thank Elisha.

“Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, ‘Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.’  But he said, ‘As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!’  He urged him to accept, but he refused.”  [II Kings 5:15-16]

Elisha himself had done nothing.  He had simply passed on directions from God.  He certainly had not cured Naaman himself.  That was God’s doing, and God’s alone.  To accept a gift, which to be fair probably was meant as a gift, was coming too close to looking like accepting payment.  That would have been tantamount to putting himself in the place of God.

            Now, here I have to step onto uncomfortable territory.  We’ve got a church to run, here.  We have electric bills and water bills to pay.  I also collect a salary and get good benefits.  I am very grateful for that, and aware of where the money in the budget comes from.  So I’m going to make a distinction here, and I believe it’s a valid one, but something to keep a close eye on.  That is to say that there’s a difference between supporting the human work that goes into an organization and somehow thinking that God’s work is in any way bought or sold.

            Since this comes up in connection with a story about a healing, I’ll point out that doctors are far better at openly addressing such matters than clergy.  More than once I have heard a doctor remark, “God does the healing and the doctor collects the fee.”  Hawkeye Pierce even said that on MASH one time.  In mental health circles, there’s the old joke that says a neurotic builds a castle in the air, a psychotic lives there, and a psychiatrist collects the rent.

            Elisha’s servant Gehazi didn’t see what God had done for Naaman.  He saw what Naaman could do for him.

“But when Naaman had gone from him a short distance, Gehazi, the servant of Elisha, the man of God, thought, ‘My master has let that Aramean Naaman off too lightly by not accepting from him what he offered.  As the Lord lives, I will run after him and get something out of him.’” [II Kings 5:19-20]

Which he did.  He made up a story about how the money was needed for the ministry, but it was really for himself. 

            Gehazi has many successors, some of whom make him look like a total bumbler.  Kenneth Copeland is a TV preacher who bought Tyler Perry’s private jet.  I guess he was being financially prudent, even frugal, by buying a secondhand plane instead of a new one.  “He made that airplane so cheap for me, I couldn’t help but buy it.”[1]  That’s a direct quote from an interview I watched online when a reporter ran up to him to ask about it.  The whole interchange is well worth watching.  Just don’t do it on a full stomach.  He goes into amazing convolutions about why he cannot be ready to preach if he flies commercial.  He also admits that he uses the plane to visit his vacation homes.  (That’s “homes” with an ‘s’.)

            Elisha called Gehazi to account.  When we do our job, the religious community as a whole does the same.  It’s only by honest recognition of how things can and do go wrong, of how people’s vulnerability can be and far too often is misused, that we can maintain any kind of credibility with the world as a whole – but most importantly before God, who looks into hearts and minds. 

            In our day the so-called “prosperity gospel” preachers teach that if you give them money, that it will be a sign of faith and God will therefore bless you with more and more wealth.  That appeals to the desperation of exactly the people who have the least, and who therefore feel that they have nothing to lose.  It’s the same dynamic that puts the majority of lottery tickets into the hands of the poor. 

            Naaman could easily afford the money that Gehazi took from him.  What he could not afford, and what Gehazi’s greed took advantage of, was his newly-developing understanding of how God works.  Elisha’s refusal of his gift highlighted that you don’t need to buy God’s goodness, and that it isn’t ever for sale anyway.  Gehazi’s little scam threatened to undermine that.  The Bible doesn’t say what happened to the money.  I hope it was sent back.  What it does say is that God had shown Elisha what had happened and Elisha knew enough not to sweep it under the carpet.

God bless auditors and accountants!  Say what you will about denominational structures and organizational bureaucracies.  They make mistakes.  They can become creaky and cumbersome.  Yet they provide oversight and answerability that does more than just keep people honest out of fear that they might get caught.  Even when they do only an average job, they keep God’s people focused on real ministry and help hold greed at a distance. 

Money is not a bad thing.  Greed is.  John Wesley put it well when he said, “Earn all you can.  Save all you can.  Give all you can.”  The Bible, as you would expect, puts it best of all:

“Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.”  [I Timothy 6:6-8]

 

 

           


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9LtF34MrsfI

 

“Restoration” - July 7, 2019

II Kings 5:1-14

            The Syrian general Naaman was in big trouble.  He had contracted leprosy, and the disease would be fatal.  In the course of it, he would also find himself cut off from contact with others as what we would now call a public health measure.  It would mean permanent quarantine.  A man in his position probably would not be driven away into the wilderness, as happened to most lepers.  People with his kind of power and prestige were treated slightly better.  In Israel, when King Uzziah was struck with the disease, he could not stay in the palace, but they built him a separate house [II Kings 15:5] and his son Jotham ruled as regent until his death.  Essentially, though, he was kept in isolation until he died.  That might have been the best that Naaman could have expected – permanent solitary confinement on an aristocratic death row.

            Word of his situation got around his household.  His wife and his servants could see what was going on.  After all, it was a disease that showed up on the skin, and eventually it would not be able to be hidden.  The king had become aware of the situation already, too, and would not let Naaman stick around indefinitely, though he may have been reluctant to lose the service of someone who apparently was an effective officer.  During the short window of time before it became public knowledge, Naaman must have become desperate.  He grasped at straws, taking the recommendation of one of his wife’s slaves, a girl taken captive in Israel.

“She said to her mistress, ‘If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria!  [That would have been Elisha.]  He would cure him of his leprosy.’  So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said.  And the king of Aram said, ‘Go, then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.’”  [II Kings 5:3-5]

 So off went a sort of combined military and diplomatic expedition that showed up on the doorstep of the king of Israel, ordering Naaman’s cure.  The king of Israel figured that this was a setup to provide a pretext for another invasion.  He couldn’t cure this man, but if he disobeyed his overlord’s order then he risked punishment.

            Enter Elisha, who heard about things and sent a message saying that he could take care of the situation.  Naaman was sent on his way.  He arrived at Elisha’s house with his horses and chariots [II Kings 5:9], and here’s when it got interesting.  To this point it has been a story of politics.  It’s about to become a story about faith.

            Elisha left Naaman outside.  He didn’t receive him.  He didn’t greet him.  He did send a servant out, who told Naaman to wash himself seven times in the Jordan and then go home.  [II Kings 5:10]  It’s a borderline insult, and Naaman took it as more than borderline.  He was not being treated in the fashion to which he had become accustomed. 

“Naaman became angry and went away, saying, ’I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!”  [II Kings 5:11]

That little “for me” says a lot.  He figured he deserved special treatment.  It was not enough to be blessed with life and health.  He had to be recognized as the powerful, mighty Naaman!  Who is this Elisha, and who is this Elisha’s God, to be so unimpressed?

            It was a good thing for Naaman that his servants understood how to manage and how to handle him.  You get the feeling this was not the first tantrum that he had thrown.  They protected his fragile little ego, and talked him into going along with the process.

“Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?  How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean?’”  [II Kings 5:13]

What they didn’t see is that Elisha had, in fact, asked him to do something difficult – at least for Naaman.  That was to accept God’s gift as something unearned, as what we call “grace”.  God would (and did) bless him, but it would not be because God was impressed with Naaman’s riches and power, but because God was aware of his need.

            There was even a need that Naaman didn’t see.  Left to progress, his leprosy would cut him off from human contact, but Naaman’s pride had already turned to arrogance toward the people around him and, left to progress, would lead him to turn away from the God who could restore him not only physically, but in relationship to those people and to God himself.  On God’s behalf, Elisha had presented a true challenge to Naaman: “Get over yourself.”  Only then would there be a real cure, both body and soul.

            I submit to you that this is a challenge we all face.  We all have to learn, one way or another, to accept God’s love at face value, pure and simple, when so much of the world tells us that what matters is our wealth or our achievement or our beauty or our intelligence or how many friends we have – pick your measure of self-worth.  None of that is any measure of our God-worth.  That comes from God alone, and if there is any kind of requirement for us to be restored to our fullest being, that requirement is to trust God and to take the love that he offers, a love so entire that Jesus lay down his life so that we could be enveloped by it.

            When Naaman gave up on impressing anybody, he was cured.

            When we accept God’s gift of grace as a gift, our life in Christ, our real life, begins.

            On July 16, 2011, in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, people had gathered from all across Europe for the funeral of Otto von Hapsburg.  The service was presided over by the Archbishop of Vienna and there was a full orchestra.  At the end they sang the “Kaiserhymne”, the Austrian equivalent of “God Save the King”.  Soldiers in ancient uniforms picked up a coffin covered with a flag embroidered with his complicated coat of arms and in a cloud of incense hundreds of people lined up behind it to process on foot to the Capuchin monastery where the imperial crypt is found.

            As had happened before at the funerals of his predecessors, when they arrived they found the front door closed and locked.  The Master of Ceremonies knocked three times.  A voice came from inside.

“Prior: Who desires entry?

MC: Otto of Austria; once Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary; Royal Prince of Hungary and Bohemia, of Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia, Lodomeria and Illyria; Grand Duke of Tuscany and Cracow; Duke of Lorraine, Salzburg, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola and the Bukowina; Grand Prince of Transylvania, Margrave of Moravia; Duke of Upper and Lower Silesia, of Modena, Parma, Piacenza, Guastalla, of Oświęcim and Zator, Teschen, Friaul, Dubrovnik and Zadar; Princely Count of Habsburg and Tyrol, of Kyburg, Gorizia and Gradisca; Prince of Trent and Brixen; Margrave of Upper and Lower Lusatia and Istria; Count of Hohenems, Feldkirch, Bregenz, Sonnenburg etc.; Lord of Trieste, Kotor and Windic March, Grand Voivod of the Voivodeship of Serbia etc. etc.

Prior: We do not know him.

(The MC knocks thrice)

Prior: Who desires entry?

MC: Dr. Otto von Habsburg, President and Honorary President of the Paneuropean Union, Member and quondam President of the European Parliament, honorary doctor of many universities, honorary citizen of many cities in Central Europe, member of numerous venerable academies and institutes, recipient of high civil and ecclesiastical honours, awards, and medals, which were given him in recognition of his decades-long struggle for the freedom of peoples for justice and right.

Prior: We do not know him.

(The MC knocks thrice)

Prior: Who desires entry?

MC: Otto, a mortal and sinful man.

Prior: Then let him come in.”[1]


[1] https://catholicismpure.wordpress.com/2011/07/24/whos-there-a-poor-sinner-habsburger-funeral-ritual/

"Elijah Is Gone" - June 30, 2019

II Kings 2:13-18

            A short but classic book by Max DePree, Leadership Is an Art, closes with this story:

 “The noted English architect Sir Christopher Wren once built a structure in London.  His employers claimed that a certain span Wren planned was too wide, that he would need another row of columns for support.  Sir Christopher, after some discussion, acquiesced.  He added the row of columns, but he left a space between the unnecessary columns and the beams above.

The worthies of London could not see this space from the ground.  To this day, the beam has not sagged.  The columns still stand firm, supporting nothing but Wren’s conviction.

Leadership is much more an art, a belief, a condition of the heart, than a set of things to do.  The visible signs of artful leadership are expressed, ultimately, in its practice.”[1]

 It seems to me that Christopher Wren and the prophet Elisha were cut from the same cloth.  Both had enough confidence to listen to others and yet stick to what they knew to a certainty in the face of other people’s doubts.  There was at least one difference, though.  Wren kept quiet about things and let the others think they knew better than he did.  Elisha couldn’t help saying, in at least one case “I told you so.”

            Maybe it was best that Elisha allowed the people who questioned what had happened to Elijah to look for themselves.  There are always going to be people who for one reason or another do not accept somebody’s account of extraordinary events.  It makes sense not only to allow but even to ensure that there is a strong system of verification to answer the objections of those who would deny what others identify as fact.  When General Eisenhower saw the concentration camps his troops were liberating and realized the depth of evil that had ruled them and the depravity committed against the prisoners, he ordered his men to go and see for themselves.  He said,


“Get it all on record now - get the films - get the witnesses -because somewhere down the road of history some [fill in the blank] will get up and say that this never happened.”[2]

 Sadly, he was right.  But the films and the stories persist to bear witness to the ugly truth, even when those who would perpetuate hatred say otherwise.

            Elijah’s disappearance does not fit that category, but those who did not at first take Elisha’s account as complete may have had their own reasons for reluctance.  It can be hard to let go of the good that you have known in the past to reach toward another, uncertain good yet to come.  Sure, Elisha is a worthy prophet himself, they might think – they did show him honor when he returned from seeing Elijah off, and they did recognize that he crossed the Jordan by means of a miracle.  But, really, would he ever measure up to Elijah?

            I do not care what you say; Justin Bieber will never rise to the level of Billy Joel, and it is ridiculous to put the names Taylor Swift and Stevie Nicks in the same sentence.

            Was it possible that the fiery chariot sent by the Lord to collect Elijah left him off someplace?  Sure, it was possible.  But what lies behind the search is a desire to hang onto the way things have been lest they descend to something less.  That happens, you know.

            The United Methodist Church has been going through some troubling times lately.  This [picture projected on the screen] is the delegation that went from Eastern Pennsylvania to the special General Conference held in April of this year to try to move things forward and break the log jams we’ve created.  One of them was ordained the same day I was.  One of them is married to an old friend ordained the same day I was.  One of them I have known since she was in high school.  One of them I have worked with in various ways since 1998.  I babysat the youngest children of another.  This month we elected a new delegation for the regular General Conference in 2020 that will have to consider the fallout from 2019, and for the Jurisdictional Conference that will meet next summer to elect bishops for the Northeast.  All but two of the people in this picture are gone. 

  Of the delegates who are coming on, not one is over 40, which is especially interesting considering that, according to a study by the Pew Research Center,

“the share of U.S. adults under age 40 who identify with a religious group is 17 percentage points lower than the share of older adults who are religiously affiliated.”[3]

So, here are these under-forties who are not only religiously affiliated, but whose commitments have led them, both clergy and laity, into religious leadership.  Who better than they to look seriously at the situation of their peers?  Who better to understand the word of the Lord for the coming days?  What greater support could someone like me offer than to say, “I’ll be over here for now.  If you need me, just holler,” and then to stay out of the way?

            Not that that’s easy for everybody, and I include myself.  I understand the way that Christopher Wren’s uninvited supervisors must have felt.  In Allentown, I helped one of my churches to get a young adults’ ministry started.  It wasn’t huge, but it brought a dozen or so people together in meaningful ways.  Yes, it began with bowling and movie nights, but they broadened out into some wonderful discussions on deep matters.  That was about when the person who had really done most of the hard work came to me and said, “How are we defining ‘young adults’?”  And I said that it generally meant people between about twenty and thirty-five years old.  And she said, “Your birthday is coming up soon, isn’t it?”  She and her husband really loved to throw cookouts and were always looking for an occasion, so I was feeling pretty good until she said, “You’re going to be thirty-seven, aren’t you?”  (Yeah, well you’re forty-seven now, Michelle!)

            I am not saying to push us oldsters out of the way.  I am not saying anyone gets to retire from discipleship until the Lord calls them home.  Nor am I saying that the leadership God calls is all younger than forty, or ninety, for that matter.  I am saying that it’s a big mistake (but one familiar even from the days of the kings of ancient Israel) to discount someone for inexperience.  The goals that the Lord sets out for his people do not change, but the best methods of working them out may shift and sometimes a new perspective is not just helpful, but necessary and it’s important to know when to step back.

            Elijah was a great man.  And when it was time, God sent a chariot of fire to take him out of the way, so that Elisha could continue what Elijah had begun. The work that they achieved together has outlasted them both.

[1] Max DePree, Leadership Is an Art (New York: Dell Publishing, 1989), 147-148.

[2] See https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/267640-get-it-all-on-record-now---get-the-films

[3] “The Age Gap in Religion around the World”   https://www.pewforum.org/2018/06/13/the-age-gap-in-religion-around-the-world/

“When a Prophet Departs” - June 23, 2019

II Kings 2:1-12 

            This morning I’m starting a sermon series on the Second Book of Kings.  It isn’t exactly Game of Thrones, but it comes close to it sometimes, without the dragons.  It describes the ups and downs of the Kingdom of Israel and some of the surrounding kingdoms over a period of generations, and uses as one of its main frameworks the life and career of the prophet Elisha. 

            It’s easy to confuse Elisha with his mentor, Elijah.  It’s like being around here when David Bretzius, David Bryant, David Hayes, David Shaw, and David Stauffer are all taking part in Bible School with Kathy Hayes, Cathie Shaw, Cathie Yeagle, Karen Bretzius, Karen Stoltzfus, and Karen Kerwin.  Elijah was the prophet who faced off against King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, and whom we hear about in today’s reading.  Elisha is the one we’ll hear about in the coming weeks.  Today we’ll consider the handoff between them.

            Elijah at one point was told by God to find Elisha and let him know that he would be his successor [I Kings 19:16], which he did.  He found Elisha just going about his business, plowing a field.  In one of those dramatic gestures that prophets are so good at, he just walked up to him, threw his mantle – his cloak – over his shoulders and kept on walking.  [I Kings 19:19-20]  Elisha understood the symbolism, went home, threw a goodbye party with his family, and left to become an apprentice prophet.

            Where we begin in the story today, though, is where the apprenticeship comes to an end.  It seems to have been common knowledge, at least in prophetic circles, that Elijah’s time was just about up.  We have this great opening sentence:

“Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.” [II Kings 2:1]

Elisha was not ready to leave him, or to let Elijah leave.  The other prophets kept raising the issue with him, and he didn’t want to hear anything about it from them.  When Elijah brought it up, Elisha refused to say goodbye.

“As the Lord lives,” he said to him, “and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” [II Kings 2:6]

Elijah tried to wind things up the best that he could, asking one of those open-ended questions that can get to the heart of things.  And he got an honest answer about what was going on with Elisha.  It wasn’t just that he was losing a teacher and a friend, but that he wasn’t sure that he would be ready to carry on the work that Elijah had dragged him into.

“Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.’  Elisha said, ‘Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.’” [II Kings 2:9]

Elijah wanted to give him that confidence, but what he had done all along, throughout his life, had not been done under his own steam.  It had been the power of God that had supported him, and it would have to be the same helper who would be with Elisha.  The choice would be God’s.

“You have asked a hard thing; yet if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” [II Kings 2:10]

            Right here lies the source of Elisha’s effectiveness as a prophet.  Right here is a crucial element in the character of anyone who is going to be a leader in any situation – at work, in the community, in church, in the military, wherever.  It’s called “humility”.  It’s an openness to self-criticism, maybe, but certainly to hearing the advice of others, but above all the advice and guidance of the Spirit of the Lord.

            Go through the Bible and time and time again you will see these elements come together: God calls someone, they question their fitness, God promises to empower them for the task, and together they see it through.

            At the burning bush, God told Moses what to do: go back to Egypt, find the pharaoh, and tell him, “Let my people go.”  Moses, of course, said, “Sure.  No problem.  Give me a couple of days and I’ll be right back out here in the desert again, with the livestock.”  Right?  No.  He made excuses and hemmed and hawed.

“Since I am a poor speaker, why would Pharaoh listen to me?” [Exodus 6:30]

So God sent Moses’ brother Aaron along with him to be his mouthpiece, and they worked as a team.  Actually, when you look at Moses’ life, he almost always had somebody working alongside him.  If it wasn’t Aaron, it was Joshua, who would take over from him like Elisha eventually took over from Elijah.

            The prophet Isaiah also questioned himself when God called him.  Like Moses, he put things in terms of his speech and, by extension, his conduct, but he was really going deeper and saying he was just plain unworthy.  “Woe is me!” he said,

“I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and dwell among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”  [Isaiah 6:5]

God’s response was to grant him a vision of an angel putting a burning coal against his unclean lips, as if to burn off the wrong.

“Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”  [Isaiah 6:7]

Then God gave him a message to deliver and said, “Go!”

            It was the same for Elisha, I suspect.  Travel around with a great and faithful prophet like Elijah for long enough, and maybe you’ll grow to be more and more in awe at what you see happen.  You could develop a sense of your own smallness beside someone like that, and maybe that is a good thing if you can also see clearly that the people through whom the Lord does great things are still people, like anybody else.  Hold onto the awareness that it was not Elijah that did wonderful things and it was not his own word that he spoke, but the word of the Lord.  It was not Moses who parted the Red Sea, but God.  It was not Isaiah who gave a suffering people hope of redemption, but the same God who would redeem them.

            So when the time came, and God gathered Elijah up to heaven in the most miraculous way, Elisha found Elijah’s mantle left behind, the mantle that had been tossed over his own shoulders when he was first drafted. 

“He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan.  He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, ‘Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?’” [II Kings 2:13-14]

He didn’t look for Elijah anymore, but for Elijah’s God.  I should say “his own God”, too, because that is the whole point of the prophetic call.  It is for people to know that God is alive and present and involved in the nitty-gritty of daily life.  God cares what we do and what we feel.  God wants us to hope his hopes and dream his dreams.  God wants us to forgive as we are forgiven, and to love as he first loved us.

            Elisha picked up the mantle of Elijah.  When he reached the Jordan, he bent over, holding it out as Elijah had done. He

“struck the water, saying, ‘Where is the God of Elijah?’ When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.” [II Kings 2:14]

Then the work began.

            God is calling you for something.  God is calling all his people.  Do I know what each precise task is?  No.  But there is some word to speak, some kindness to show.  Are you up to it?  No.  None of us is.  That’s the beauty of it.  That’s what grace is about.  None of us is in any place to speak, let alone act.  But God has provided us with complete pardon through Jesus, the kind of pardon that frees us up to live in better ways and beyond that to move the world toward a better situation because we aren’t (I pray) doing it for ourselves or under our own power.

            Just keep asking, “Where is the God of Elijah?”

 

"An Interlocking God" - June 16, 2019

“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that the Father has is mine.  For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

To be totally frank about my first reaction whenever one of these readings from John comes along where Jesus speaks about his relationship to God the Father and to God the Holy Spirit, (and this is not the most convoluted of those passages) I feel a bit like Nathan Fillion in this brief clip:

https://www.google.com/search?q=nathan+fillion+memes&tbm=isch&tbs=rimg:CZF8XgtgBc7CIjiuc-Xu0MCYDEoE0LA9Bt8zgB0bbBXFHydlhvKEf-ypYyfy_16VuGhMPoPftRGrOp4ccWt_1cqg87AioSCa5z5e7QwJgMET5FYcY4ttz5KhIJSgTQsD0G3zMRirb2oR2F_1msqEgmAHRtsFcUfJxF_1geG7C5Y7HSoSCWWG8oR_17KljES85xK235s5vKhIJJ_1L_1pW4aEw8RCkbHubR8l0AqEgmg9-1Eas6nhxFY1ldvEWKyoyoSCRxa39yqDzsCEdhGvFZF1b-E&tbo=u&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj_w6uqjeLiAhXLjVkKHYN4DIEQ9C96BAgBEBs&biw=1093&bih=486&dpr=1.25#imgdii=sQq8cuJVjbRjmM:&imgrc=rnPl7tDAmAwCUM:

I want to say something but recognize that I could get it totally wrong and do more harm than good.  I also recognize that I am in good company on that.  Carlo Carretto, in his book The God Who Comes, sums it up when he says,

“The revelation of a triune God in the unity of a single nature the revelation of a divine Holy Spirit present in us, is not on the human level; it does not belong to the realm of reason.  It is a personal communication which God alone can give, and the task of giving it belongs to the Holy Spirit, who is the same love which unites the Father and the Son.  [I’m going to come back to that, so let me read that last part again: ‘the Holy Spirit, who is the same love which unites the Father and the Son.’”]

The Holy Spirit is the fullness and the joy of God.

It is so difficult to speak of these things.  We have to babble like children, but at least, like children, we can say over and over again, tirelessly, ‘Spirit of God, reveal yourself to me, your child.’”[1]

So, with the caveat that better people than I have babbled about this, let me babble, too.

                Of all the New Testament writers, John is the one who has the most highly-developed way of thinking about the relationship among the three persons of the Trinity.  (And that word “Trinity” is not itself in the Bible, but is a shorthand word for a complex thought.  It is a word like “gravity” or “relativity” would be in physics, or “caramelize” would be in cooking.)  Matthew 25:19 gives us Jesus’ parting direction to make disciples and to baptize

“in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”

and Paul talks about how

“the Lord is the Spirit” [II Corinthians 3:17]

in the same letter where speaks of

“the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” [II Corinthians 4:4]

but Paul also calls Jesus “Lord” all the time and even says that

“God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself” [II Corinthians 5:19],

so it seems clear to me that the sense of what we call “the Trinity” is right there all the way along, even if the wording that we use when we get theological was only hashed out in later centuries with a lot of debate and sometimes even fighting.

                But I digress.  It’s unavoidable on this topic.

                John, whose gospel has the most developed ways of expressing this aspect of God, also uses the simplest language in one of his letters, where he says,

“Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”  [I John 4:8]

So at the risk of sounding foolish, I will share how I believe those go together: the notion that God is love and that God exists as the Holy Trinity.  If it helps, great.  If not, take a few minutes and pray quietly, ignoring me and using the time better.

                Start with the idea that God is love.  Now, that’s all very good to say, but how can love simply exist on its own?  Love is more than a concept.  It’s an activity and a relationship.  For there to be love, there must be someone to do the loving.  That someone is God. 

For there to be love, there must also be someone to be loved.  Without an object, the verb “love” is meaningless, like when someone says, “I love humanity.  It’s people I can’t stand.”  If love is real, it attaches to an object.  Even the pagans knew that – Cupid’s arrow was always aimed at a target, not just shot into the air.  

Now, here I’m going off into one of these metaphysical moments.

Since God is eternal and existed before creation, that someone who is loved must also be eternal, which means the object of the divine love must be God as well, but in some way differentiated from that which loves.  So what we end up with is God, who is love; God, who loves; and God, who is loved. (And since love is reciprocated, neither is subordinate except in the way that love leads someone to put the other first, so that what one wills the other wills also, and so forth.) What we end up with is a three-personed God, no part of which is identical, yet each part of whom is necessary to the other two, and in agreement with the other two in all things.

Jesus expressed what it would mean for his disciples to worship this interlocking God.

“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that the Father has is mine.  For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” [John 16:12-15]

Confusing?  Yes.  But a true and living God is not ever going to be totally understandable to anyone but himself. 

                    The creeds that the Church worked out by trial and error over the centuries reflect not a precise definition of God, but a statement of faith.  This, they say, is what we have known and what has been shown to us.  This, they say, is what is central to keeping our own loving response to a loving God focused and direct.  So, when you look at any of them, and when we recite them together, including the Apostles’ Creed that we will share in a moment, you will see them built around the three persons of the Trinity, understanding that we cannot speak of any one of them without the other two.  Nor can we speak of just some vague divine being without reference to the concrete life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and to the Holy Spirit’s work in the life of his followers.

So I invite you to stand with me and together confess our faith using the words of the Apostles’ Creed, and as we do so, to bear witness to the eternal God, three-in-one and one-in-three.

                             

[1] Quoted in Reuben Job and Norman Shawchuck, A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants (Nashville: The Upper Room, 1983), 194.

“Blowing in the Wind” - June 9, 2019

John 3:7-8

Pentecost was a unique and holy moment, with the coming of the Holy Spirit upon God’s people, but it isn’t as if Jesus had never spoken of the Spirit’s unlikely doings.  He told Nicodemus that 

 

“The wind [or the Spirit – the word in New Testament Greek is the same] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes.” [John 3:8]  

 

From time to time the Holy Spirit has decided to turn up its normal, gentle breeze, it’s constant and quiet breathing of life into the Church to the level of a gale.

 

In August of 1801, a small Presbyterian log church in Cane Ridge, Kentucky announced that they were going to offer a couple of days of preaching services to conclude with communion on the last night. They were hoping the local community would find When thousands of people started pouring in from the backwoods, the local clergy called in extra preachers from the neighborhood and built a bunch of outdoor platforms for them to stand on in front of the crowds.  Peter Cartwright, who was nineteen at the time, recalled, 

“The people crowded to this meeting from far and near. They came in their large wagons, with victuals mostly prepared. The women slept in the wagons, and the men under them. Many stayed on the ground night and day for a number of nights and days together. Others were provided for among the neighbors around. The power of God was wonderfully displayed; scores of sinners fell under the preaching, like men slain in mighty battle; Christians shouted aloud for joy.

To this meeting I repaired, a guilty, wretched sinner. On the Saturday evening of said meeting, I went, with weeping multitudes, and bowed before the stand, and earnestly prayed for mercy. In the midst of a solemn struggle of soul, an impression was made on my mind, as though a voice said to me, “Thy sins are all forgiven thee.” Divine light flashed all round me, unspeakable joy sprung up in my soul. I rose to my feet, opened my eyes, and it really seemed as if I was in heaven; the trees, the leaves on them, and everything seemed, and I really thought were, praising God. My mother raised the shout, my Christian friends crowded around me and joined me in praising God; and though I have been since then, in many instances, unfaithful, yet I have never, for one moment, doubted that the Lord did, then and there, forgive my sins and give me religion.”

Our meeting lasted without intermission all night, and it was believed by those who had a very good right to know, that over eighty souls were converted to God during its continuance. I went on my way rejoicing for many days.”

Apart from the good that it did for the people who responded, the events at Cane Ridge kicked off the establishment of camp meetings all over the country.  Places like Ocean Grove, Chester Heights, and Mt. Gretna were part of that.

 

A little over forty years later, the country was at war with itself.  Soldiers who found themselves close to death began to ask questions about the meaning of life, about justice and injustice, about what they were doing in combat, about all sorts of things.  That was when another series of spontaneous revivals arose in both armies.  This is from a history of Virginia by Stephen Woodworth:

 

“Revivals in the armies took different forms. In 1862 a Georgia soldier serving in Virginia wrote that although there had been none of what he called "revival meetings"—large, enthusiastic, often highly demonstrative religious services—nevertheless a strong religious movement was in progress, characterized by nightly prayer meetings in many regiments and a large upsurge in Bible reading among the troops. At other times the army revivals included more traditional displays of heightened religious interest. During the first months of 1864, delegates of the United States Christian Commission, an organization established by Northern churches to minister to the spiritual and material needs of the soldiers, set up a tent in the Vermont Brigade of the Union's Army of the Potomac. Though the tent could hold two hundred men, it hosted overflow crowds at nightly meetings, with many men unable to get close enough to hear the preaching. Services lasted an hour and a half, with a short sermon followed by a lengthy experience meeting in which many soldiers took part. Similar meetings were taking place throughout the Army of the Potomac that winter, as well as in the camps of the Army of Northern Virginia.”

The time was right.  The need was there.  

 

Who would have expected that?  But I guess

 

“The Spirit blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes.” [John 3:8]  

 

In April of 1906, a spontaneous revival began at a chapel on Azusa Street in Los Angeles.  The Assemblies of God, that run the University of Valley Forge, and most churches that call themselves “Pentecostal” trace their beginnings to this. The happenings at Azusa Street went on until around 1915 before dying down.  Can you imagine a nine-year revival?  Five days of Vacation Bible School can be exhausting!  

 

“The Spirit blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes.” [John 3:8]  

 

And Jesus continues:

 

“So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” [John 3:9]

 

What happens when you do go with it?

 

Peter Cartwright, whose recollection of his conversion at Cane Ridge I shared earlier, became a Methodist circuit rider.  Most Methodist preachers, even today, start out assigned to a circuit.  My first appointment had three churches.  Another I served had two.  Cartwright was appointed to Illinois.  That was his territory – all of Illinois.  He wasn’t preaching to ten thousand people at a time, but to four or five here and a dozen there, but his work left its mark.  And he was just one of thousands who came to faith in Christ that summer.

 

As to the Civil War revivals, I like to think that it was the Christian witness offered to one another by people gathered from what were then distant places eventually allowed them to see even their enemies, when the smoke cleared, as brothers in faith and to begin the hard work of rebuilding across the lines of victor and vanquished, so much so that fifty years after Gettysburg some of the survivors of those bloody days stood on the land where they once shot at each other, shook hands, and then sat down to a picnic lunch together.

 

“I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”  [Matthew 5:44-45]

 

One of the blessings of the Azusa Street Revival was that those present saw the gifts of the Spirit being shared out among both dark- and light-skinned people.  In the time when Jim Crow laws were being laid down across the continent, the Holy Spirit was at work breaking down the barriers that humans were trying to reinforce.

 

“In the last days it will be, God declares, 

that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,

and your sons and daughters shall prophesy,

and your young men shall see visions,

and your old men shall dream dreams.” [Acts 2:17]

 

There is no one way, but an infinite number of ways, that the Holy Spirit makes its way into the human heart and soul.  It might in a crowd of people standing and waving their hands with tears running down their cheeks.  It might be at a campfire at Innabah or Pocono Plateau.  It might be when you’re called on to stand up for what is right, and you suddenly find courage you didn’t know you had.  It might be when you find words that don’t feel like they’re entirely your own and you say to yourself later, “Where did that come from?”  It might be at a moment when you are overcome by joy or beauty.  It might be right now, this very moment, or in the car on your way home today.  

“The Spirit blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes.” [John 3:8]  

 

Wherever it is going, go with it.

 

"On Your Mark! Get Set!" - June 2, 2019

Acts 1:1-11

            Think back, if you can, into the past.  Not the far past, just two weeks ago today.  It was Sunday evening, around 8:00 or 9:00, just after dark, and the sky began to flicker.  There was a strange kind of lightning, at least in my neighborhood, that didn’t have a lot of thunder to go with it, but that kept flickering on and off behind the clouds.  Occasionally there was a bolt that shot down to the ground or more often from one cloud to another.  Mostly the sky just lit up and went dark, over and over and over again, like somebody was flipping a light switch on and off.  All of this continued for well over an hour.

            I sat there watching it.  I was waiting for it to get closer or move further away, but the storm system seemed to have stalled.  I was waiting for thunder, but it never really went above a low rumble.  I was waiting for the first raindrops to pound down onto the roof, but they never came.  Yet for those couple of hours, I was sure that something was going to happen.

            Think back, if you can, to a summer right after you graduated from high school.  Maybe you would be going to college in the fall.  Maybe you had a brief period before you started your first full-time job.  Maybe you had a week or two or even a month before entering the military.  Remember, if you can, the strange period where something was getting ready to happen but it was not quite underway.

            Remember, if you will, some crucial point in your life when you were balanced precariously between what was and what could be.  Think of a time when you were eager to move forward with something but you had to wait, not like waiting for Christmas morning or a birthday, wonderful days that come and then go, but waiting for something you aren’t even quite sure about that will be less of a single event than a life-change.

            Robert Graves, the British poet, put a poem called “Leaving the Rest Unsaid” at the end of his selection of his best work.  It says,

Finis, apparent on an earlier page,

With fallen obelisk for colophon,

Must this be here repeated?

 

Death has been ruefully announced

And to die once is death enough,

Be sure, for any life-time.

 

Must the book end, as you would end it,

With testamentary appendices

And graveyard indices?

 

But no, I will not lay me down

To let your tearful music mar

The decent mystery of my progress.

 

So now, my solemn ones, leaving the rest unsaid,

Rising in air as on a gander’s wing,

At a careless comma,”

            That’s where Jesus left the disciples when he ascended into heaven, telling them to stay in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit showed up.  He left them like runners at the starting block in the moment between, “Ready!  Set!” and…

            They didn’t know what to expect.  They only knew to expect something.  That kind of leaves you on edge, doesn’t it?

“Knock, knock!”

[Who’s there?]

[Silence.]

The thing is, that you know something is to follow.  You might feel it as a kind of dread, you might feel it as a kind of hope, but you feel it.  You’re right there at the top of the first hill on the roller coaster and you see nothing ahead of you but sky and maybe you hear the sudden screams of the people in the third car ahead of you.

             The Holy Spirit would come to those disciples.  We’ll hear about that again next week, as we always do on Pentecost.  The Holy Spirit would come and everyone would be off and running and lives would change in a whirlwind of miracles and wonders, and there would be discussions and arguments about what was happening and why and how to handle it.  Generations would pass until people began to make any sense out of what it meant for the Spirit of God to be poured out on Jesus’ followers. 

 “While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized you with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’” [Acts 1:4-5]

 In the narrow time between Jesus’ ascension and that day, they did stay put.  They did what they knew how to do.  They chose a man named Matthias to take the place of Judas [Acts 1:15-26].  They didn’t rush things, but waited to see what God would do.

“All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.” [Acts 1:14]

             We all need those times, as much as we like to get on with things.  Maybe it’s because we prefer to get on with things that periods of waiting and reflection are so important.  We build Advent and Lent into the church year so that we get the full impact of Christmas and Easter, and I’ve noticed that folks who take those periods seriously are generally those who experience their joy most deeply.  We have long engagements not just so that couples can spend more time sampling cake and rewriting guest lists but more importantly so that the realities and fears that can and should be part of something as serious as taking wedding vows can sink in.  It’s not always possible, but it’s a wonderful thing when somebody making a major decision about the direction of their life can take either a regular block of time out of each day for awhile or maybe a few days entirely to think and pray about what they should do.  Stay in Jerusalem, as it were, stay in your life as you know it, and pray until you get the word, whatever that word turns out to be.  If you are serious about your prayer life, you will hear.  If you let other concerns, including your own plans or your own thoughts even, interfere, then when God speaks, you might not be listening.

             God does speak, after all.  What God says, quite often, is “On your mark!  Get set!”

“Handling Handoffs” - May 26, 2019

John 14:15-29

            One of the preachers whose sermons I enjoy reading is Harry Emerson Fosdick, who was in his prime about a hundred years ago.  He was the founding pastor of Riverside Church, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, near Columbia.  That was where John Rockefeller went to church every Sunday.  For the building’s dedication, he wrote the hymn we’re going to sing at the end of the service today: “God of Grace and God of Glory”.  Toward the end of his life, when he wrote his memoirs, he said that one of the things that bothered him most about having had a long and fruitful ministry was that nobody called him “Harry” anymore.  It was always “Dr. Fosdick”.

            That’s why it especially jumped out at me when I was listening to a podcast not long ago that another great preacher, Will Willimon, a now-retired United Methodist bishop, former Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, Professor of the Practice of Ministry at the Duke University Divinity School, author of I don’t know how many books, said the same thing.  The interviewer was in his early 30’s and kept vacillating between “Bishop” and “Dr. Willimon”, even when he said, “Just call me Will.  It saves syllables.

            Don’t get me wrong.  Respect is a good thing.  We could probably, as a society, do with a bit more of it.  However, there is a point where Christian leaders worthy of respect have to recognize that sometimes they have to step back a bit and let other people exercise their own gifts for ministry in order for the faith to flourish.  Ironically, that was the point that Will was trying to make throughout the podcast I was listening to.  At one point he said this (and remember he is speaking to somebody thirty years his junior):

“The kingdom of God is not limited to one generation, particularly the older generation.  And so I think y’all are going to have to do more stepping up to say, ‘Okay, we’ve done it your way.  Thank you, everybody over fifty, but now we’re going to have to ask, “How is God reaching a new generation, and how can we hitch onto that?”’”[1]

 I have to say, as someone whose age is halfway between Will’s and his interviewer’s, both groups are having a hard time.  It’s like watching a parent teaching a teenager to drive.  It has to happen, they both want it to happen, but one is scared of taking over the wheel and of the oncoming traffic while the other is trying to be encouraging but cannot avoid the occasional obvious intake of breath and the use of the phantom brake.

            It would be good for us to go back to how Jesus handled things when he was preparing the disciples for a time when they would not be able to turn to him anytime they ran into a difficulty and expect him to fix it.  That did happen at times, after all.  Mark tells us of a time when a father brought his son to Jesus to be healed of what sounds like epilepsy who said,  

“‘Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.’ He answered them, ‘You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.’” [Mark 9:17-19]

Jesus healed him, of course, but I hear a certain degree of frustration with the disciples.  I also hear a little bit of embarrassment on their part in what followed:

“When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘This kind can come out only through prayer.’” [Mark 9:28-29]

 In any form of ministry, any form of service, there has to be both willingness to pass on and to take up responsibility for the work of the kingdom.

            And, yes, it can be especially difficult for those who have seen others do it well before them.  They only see results, not the process, which can be messy and confusing, and sometimes full of guesswork.  I have no idea what went on with Fosdick on a daily basis.  He does talk, in his autobiography, about having had a nervous breakdown at one point early on.  As for Will, I was there in a staff meeting as a student intern when he kept jumping up and down to answer calls and find information that he couldn’t call to mind, to the point where the secretaries went to the closet while he was out of the room and got out a short length of rope that they threw around him when he sat down, and tied him into the chair.  When we turn to someone and say, “We need you to organize an online outreach,” and they think, “I don’t know where to begin,” it doesn’t occur to them that nobody else knows, either, but they stand a better chance of making a good guess.  Do you think I understand Instagram?  I seem to have an account, but I’m unclear how that happened.  I don’t know how to log on, and, frankly, don’t really see the point.  But I don’t do that stuff – none of us does – for ourselves.

            Nor do any of us do ministry on our own.  Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs.  He didn’t send anybody out as a lone ranger.  And those pairs came back and reported to the whole group.  They shared their successes and they talked about their failures.  They had both.  Later on, Paul traveled around with assistants like Luke and Silas, though he had a falling out with Barnabbas at one point and they had to split up.  He also took Timothy along with him, who was a generation younger than him, and accepted help from a runaway slave named Onesimus who was probably about Timothy’s age, too.

            Above all, all of us have always had and will always have recourse to a Helper who knows not only what has worked best in the past to convey the love of God in Christ to a world that needs it desperately, but what is going to work when the way we’ve always done it (or the way we think we’ve always done it) needs to be re-examined.  Before Jesus left the upper room to go to the Garden of Gethsemane, where the Romans would arrest him, he gave his disciples a whole lot of last-minute instructions.  He also told them where to turn if they had questions or qualms.  He said,

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you.  But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” [John 14:25-26]

See, for some crazy, inexplicable reason, he trusted them.  Even though he knew they would fail him that night and the next day, he trusted them for the long run.  He trusted them with the news that the kingdom of God had come near.  And for some crazy, inexplicable reason, he trusts us – all of us – with that same message, too. 

So pass it along in your own way.


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=71JxnaK1DFg&list=PL0Scnp4xkKUw16aFNBkPIsOcx70ebFlSk&index=3

 

"Love? Really?" - May 19, 2019

John 13:31-35 

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” [John 13:35]

            That verse is so simple, and such a minefield!

            Just start with the word “everyone”.  There’s no doubt that the world judges Christianity as a whole, and within that specific denominations or local churches or individuals, on the basis of how closely we do or do not live up to the ideals of Jesus.  There’s no doubt that we judge each other by that same standard.  We may even apply it to ourselves.  And we inevitably fail.

            I hate that, especially when it’s used as a pretext for criticism from people who at the same time claim not to care about faith at all.  It begins, often, with someone whose behavior or worldview is called into question by Jesus’ words or by the ideals that the Church espouses becoming defensive, and going on the offense in response.  “Who are you to criticize me?  Look at how you people live!”  Then follows a laundry list of sins and failures and reminders about famous Christians who have done some terrible things.

            I get that.  I really do.  Only a fool would try to excuse all that has happened in the past two thousand years.  If it’s any consolation, I would just point out that we’ve never claimed to get everything right and, at our best, we have had the grace (by which I mean the help of God) to listen to critics both inside and outside of the faith community and to say, “Thank you.  We need your input to stay honest.”  I would point out that the Bible itself talks about the temptations that come when we are anything less than genuine about our witness.  The book of Acts tells how the earliest Christian community included a couple named Ananias and Sapphira who wanted everyone to think that they were the most selfless and sacrificial of givers, whole-hearted supporters of the work of the Kingdom.  When Peter saw through them, he declared,

“You did not lie to us but to God!” [Acts 5:4]

Ananias was suddenly struck down dead and then about three hours later so was Sapphira.  You would think we’d get the message about trying to make ourselves look good by means of religion, but it still goes on, though without the sudden divine punishment.  The only way you can exonerate the Church from sin is by ignoring the Bible and history and probably the witness of your own eyes and ears.

            Any attempt to put the Church up on a pedestal is a form of idolatry.  Of course, when the Church’s critics do exactly that, they are setting up an idol of their own, but doing it so that they have an idol to knock down rather than one to worship.  Whatever the purpose, though, it involves making a false claim that replaces God in someone’s heart or mind.

            So I would say that one of the best things we can do in answer to our critics is to pay attention to them when they have a point, and otherwise to ignore them.  Otherwise we get drawn into a game that we have neither the expertise nor the time nor the energy to play when we have more important and better matters in front of us.  Specifically, there is this whole business of loving one another.

            So let’s be clear about a few points.

            There’s a difference between liking each other and loving one another.  Liking often has to do with the sense of having something in common.  We find that we are “alike”.  We find the same things sad or funny.  We enjoy similar activities or have similar interests.  Our cultural backgrounds are similar.  We share the same references.  I can ask, “What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen sparrow?” and you know to respond, “African or European?”  If you don’t get that, all I have to do is say, “It’s a joke from Monty Python,” and you know to roll your eyes.

            Loving has to do with appreciating another person for being different.  For the most part, men and women fall romantically for someone who works on a vastly different emotional system, influenced by hormonal differences that they learn to manage within their relationships but managing is probably the best they will ever be able to do.  You know that a man is truly in love with a woman when he lets her choose the movie on date night.  You know that a woman is truly in love when she does not suggest that a man use his GPS.  These are stereotypes and generalizations, I know.  Everyone has their own examples, though.

            Non-romantic love works the same way in that it appreciates and honors those who are not in the same column as we are, sometimes in very important ways.  That is where Jesus really puts it on his disciples when he said,

“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”  [John 13:34]

When he assembled his inner circle of disciples he consciously included people who were very unlike one another.  Simon the Zealot was from a group dedicated to wiping out people like Matthew the tax collector.  John had tremendous faith, and Thomas needed to see things with his own eyes.  They had support from women like Mary and Martha, two sisters who got on each other’s nerves because Martha was a workaholic and considered her sister lazy.

            Once the Holy Spirit got the Church going, the original disciples, who at least all shared a religious and cultural background as Jews, found themselves trying to figure out what to do when Gentiles wanted to join in.  These were people who did not speak their language or have any idea what they were talking about when they referred to people from the scriptures, and who didn’t much care about what happened in Jerusalem.

            We still deal with that kind of challenge.  How do you – how do we – incorporate into our life people who don’t go all gooey when they hear “Just As I Am” or know why we have all kinds of committees or wonder what the connection is between green-bean casseroles and the kingdom of God?  (And, yes, there is a connection, which is a whole different sermon.)  How do people who come down on different sides of political or social issues – MAGA people and Bernie Bros – find themselves required by Jesus himself to love one another?

            Again, we’re supposed to love one another as Jesus loved us.  His love was a costly love.  It wasn’t about what he got out of it, but what he put in, and that was his entire self and his entire life, and ultimately it meant going all the way to a cross.  When we have that kind of love, the trivial stuff drops away.

            Let me read you part of someone’s commentary on that kind of love, a commentary that’s often mistakenly applied to romance. 

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” [I Corinthians 13:4-7]

When that kind of love is there, people see beyond the immediate and obvious faults and flaws that we have.  They know that we are limited, and if we are wise we also admit that.  Instead, they see a deeper and fuller reality that outlasts the rest.  They see a whole that is greater than its parts.  They see a Savior who is bigger than the institutions built by his followers. 

“Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” [I Corinthians 13:8-13]

"I Know Them" - May 12, 2019

John 10:22-30

            There are some aspects of the Bible that I confess I have trouble connecting with, and one of those is the whole business of God as a shepherd.  I am not running down the beauty and comfort of the Twenty-Third Psalm.  It’s one that I say when I really need to lean on the Lord.  I can certainly appreciate the parable of the shepherd who had one hundred sheep and, when he lost one of them, left the ninety-nine where they were to go and find the stray.  I get all of that.  I can extrapolate, too, from the way my dogs act.

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” [John 10:27]

That’s not so different from what I find with the chihuahuas.  On Monday, I had a real problem with the oldest one.  He wouldn’t leave me alone.  Every time I opened my office door, he tried to slip out behind me, and he succeeded about four or five times.  It’s not that I don’t want him around, but when the Montessori students see him, they stop doing whatever it is that they are doing on the hallway floor – counting paper clips or fussing with their shoes or whatever – and all start going, “Oh!  Look!  So cute!” and he gets scared.

            I kind of wish I could be that kind of disciple, who wants to follow Jesus that closely.  I confess that I tend more to be the hound-dog type who looks up and says, “Oh, here he is again.  I wonder what he’s up to this time.  Where did I leave that biscuit?  Who keeps moving the sunny spot?” and falls asleep again.

            So how does Jesus deal with someone like me?

            This verse actually has two parts.  If I look at just the part that says, “they follow me”, I miss out on the reason why.  I miss out on the part that says, “I know them.”  What is it like to be known so well by somebody that they don’t even bother with the truly unimportant stuff?  Maybe I should ask, “Who in your life really knows how to speak your language and to cut through everything else enough to really get through to you?”

            Happy Mothers’ Day!  Here are the words to a song by Garrison Keillor that I’m not going to try to sing, but I think we’ll all get it.

One day a child came home from football,

Where he had fumbled, was jeered and booed,

His mother saw that his heart was breaking,

And so she made him his favorite food.

 

She did not make a garden salad,

She made no rolls nor beans,

It was a sandwich, on toasted white bread,

Of peanut butter creamy style.

 

The years went by and he was a loser,

He led a useless and wretched life,

And yet she never criticized him,

She smiled as she got out the knife.

 

She did not make a garden salad,

She made no rolls nor beans,

It was a sandwich, on toasted white bread,

Of peanut butter creamy style.

 

Then he decided on the basis,

Of a book that he read one fall,

That his problems had resulted,

From excessive cholesterol.

 

He had some bowls of garden salad,

He ate those rolls and beans,

He gave up sandwiches on toasted white bread,

With peanut butter creamy style.

 

That night his dog died, he smashed his pick-up,

His sweetheart left him, he lost his hair,

His house caught fire, he went to prison,

His dear old mother came to him there.

 

She did not bring a garden salad,

She brought no rolls nor beans,

She brought a sandwich on toasted white bread,

Of peanut butter creamy style,

 

It was a sandwich on toasted white bread,

Of peanut butter creamy style.

            That, my friends, is why we pay attention to Mothers’ Day in church.  In fact, it was a holiday that began with us.  A Methodist woman from West Virginia named Anna Jarvis pushed for a serious recognition of the rough ministry called motherhood, and she succeeded.  At the end of her life, though, she became disenchanted with the way it became (and still is) commercialized.  At one point she wrote,

“A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.”[1]

Anna Jarvis must have been a force of nature.  She moved to Philadelphia and before World War I she became the first female advertising editor at Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance, down on Market St. right where the El goes underground, and was a partner in her brother’s business, the Quaker City Cab Company.  She died in West Chester and is buried at West Laurel Hill in Bala Cynwyd.

But I digress.  Let’s get back to the real point, which is that although not all mothers are saints (and some who are martyrs may be the least saintly of all), still, if you want to understand something about how the Lord both knows us and loves us, you don’t have to look very far.

Jesus spoke about himself as a shepherd protecting his sheep.  Listen to this passage, but instead of a shepherd speaking about sheep, hear it as a mother might speak if a child is put in jeopardy.

“I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.” [John 10:28-30]

Don’t get into an argument at a PTA meeting with that parent.

            And also hear this: you are a child of God.  You are the one who is known and understood, loved and corrected, protected and challenged, guided and sent, taught and instructed, heard and hugged.  You know the voice that speaks to you.  You know whose it is.  And you know whose you are.

            So, you be nice to your sisters and brothers.  You watch your language.  Don’t you forget to share, to say “please” and “thank you” and to clean up after yourself. 

And call home.  Jesus wants to hear from you, too.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Jarvis

"Alpha and Omega" - May 5, 2019

Revelation 1:8

            In Revelation 1:8, in one part of one of the string of visions that John describes,

 ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. 

 That is the source of the symbols in this front window, and that you will see all over Christian art and architecture, of the Alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet (hear the “alpha” in that word?), and of the Omega, the last letter (and it sounds like a long “O”, not a “Z”).  The expression comes around again in Revelation 21:6, where in another vision Jesus tells John,

“It is done!  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”

In the very last chapter of the entire Bible, again we read:

“I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”  [Revelation 22:13]

Those two letters are used to express the belief that God is the beginning of all and the end of all.

            Since we’re going down the rabbit hole of Greek language, though, the language of the New Testament, I should point out that when we say God is “the end of all”, the word the Bible uses doesn’t mean “the end” the way we mean it when it flashes up on the screen at “the end” of a movie: “The End”; throw your popcorn bucket away and go home.  The Greek word, “telos”, also means “purpose” or “goal”, as we might say, “To what end are you driving so fast?”  The universe starts because of God, not only because God is its Creator, but also because God is its purpose or reason for being.  God is its goal.

            Now, you can get really tangled up in this stuff.  I looked through a series of TED talks to see what is out there, and came across one called “Why does the universe exist?”[1]  The speaker’s name was Jim Holt and it had over 4 million views.  That says something right there about how compelling the question is.  What also tells me something is the way the talk opens. “Why does the universe exist?” he asks, and the audience breaks out in laughter.  “Okay, okay,” he says, and he’s laughing, too.  “This is a cosmic mystery.  Be solemn.” They laugh because they know – we all know – that we aren’t going to be able to find a satisfactory answer, not in the sense of anything that we can set out philosophically or scientifically.  He goes on to point out that the simple comeback, “There’s a universe because God created one,” isn’t really a complete answer because it just leads back to another question beyond that: “Where did this God come from?” or “Why is there anything rather than nothing at all?”

            That is a good question.  Next?

            Our faith may tell us that we are God’s creation.  We are also told that God is the Alpha and Omega, the first and last, the beginning and the end.  Science can tell us that time itself had a beginning, and I don’t pretend to understand the physics of it.  I can follow an explanation as somebody walks me through it, but I cannot hold it in my head – and that’s alright with me. 

“Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end” means that God was around before time existed, and so is sort of outside time, and thus is capable of seeing it all at once, along with all possible shapes it could take (not just what we know has happened or is happening).  Paul Tillich expresses that this way:

“Special moments of time are not separated from each other; presence is not swallowed by past and future; yet the eternal keeps the temporal within itself. …If we call God a living God, we affirm that he includes temporality and with this a relation to the modes of time.”[2]

When I ponder that kind of observation, or try to think about what really is meant when we refer to God as “eternal”, one of two things happens.  One: sometimes my mind’s eye begins to glaze over.  I lose track of whatever thought I had three seconds earlier.  Two (and this is how it should be): my sense of awe and wonder at God goes through the roof.

At the end of Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose, the narrator who is by that time an elderly monk, gives his own summary of what happens to him when he holds up his own existence against the backdrop of God and eternity.

“All I can do now is be silent. O quam salubre, quam iucundum et suave est sedere in solitudine et tacere et loqui cum Deo! [O how healthy and joyful and sweet it is to sit in solitude and be silent and speak with God!] Soon I shall be joined with my beginning, and I no longer believe that it is the God of glory of whom the abbots of my order spoke to me …  Gott ist ein lauter Nichts, ihn rührt kein Nun noch Hier. [God is a nothing, nothing is still stirring here.] … I shall soon enter this broad desert, perfectly level and boundless, where the truly pious heart succumbs in bliss. I shall sink into the divine shadow, in a dumb silence and an ineffable union, and in this sinking all equality and all inequality shall be lost, and in that abyss my spirit will lose itself, and will not know the equal or the unequal, or anything else: and all differences will be forgotten. I shall be in the simple foundation, in the silent desert where diversity is never seen, in the privacy where no one finds himself in his proper place. I shall fall into the silent and uninhabited divinity where there is no work and no image.”[3]

If you are the sort of person for whom thinking and praying sort of blur together, to consider God’s eternity is a good way to draw near to him.  Admittedly, not everyone fits that description, and that is alright.

            For people as a whole, whether that describes them or not, on a day-by-day basis, we do deal with questions of time and its limits more than we realize.  We experience the weight of the past when we have to deal with people’s baggage, or our own, from long ago.  We worry about the future because of all that could go wrong.  Both of those steal our confidence in the present and our enjoyment of the moments we pass through from one to the other.  For God to announce himself as the Eternal One is a blessing.

When life itself is consciously grounded in faith, and faith is consciously grounded in Jesus, God-with-us, though, God enfolds us in a kind of care that transcends everything.  That includes all aspects of life, even time.  I’ll close with words from Paul Tillich again, who seems to have given this a lot of thought.

“‘I am the beginning and the end.’  This is said to us who live in the bondage of time, who have to face the end, who cannot escape the past, who need a present to stand upon.  Each of the modes of time has its particular mystery, each of them carries its particular anxiety.  Each of them drives us to an ultimate question.  There is one answer to these questions – the eternal.  There is one power that surpasses the all-consuming power of time – the eternal: He Who was and is to come, the beginning and the end.  He gives us forgiveness for what has passed.  He gives us courage for what is to come.  He gives us rest in His eternal Presence.”[4]


[1] https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=zORUUqJd81M

[2] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 274.

[3] http://www.goodwin.ee/ekafoto/tekstid/Eco%20Umberto%20-%20The%20Name%20Of%20The%20Rose.pdf

[4] Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963), 131-132.

"A Problem Named Jesus" - April 21, 2019 (Easter Day)

Acts 10:34-43

            People sometimes talk about the church as a family.  Now, that may be true.  But you have to remember that not all families are perfect.  The Kardashians are a family.  More to the point, so (at least on screen) were the Huxtables.  The Kardashians put everything out in public and have no real qualms about letting the camera see the whole bit.  The Huxtables, though?  It seems to me that we have more in common with the Huxtables than we like to admit.  On camera, everything looks ideal.  Off camera, there are some awful things happening, and when they come to light, it’s impossible to smile at The Cosby Show the way we once did.

That’s why we go to such lengths to keep things quiet for as long as we can.  When there are problems, we do a pretty good job of managing them instead of fixing them.  (Let’s not even mention the ones we cannot fix.)  When we identify what Al Gore called “An Inconvenient Truth” we know what to do with it.  We ignore it.  We deny it.  We bury it.  Our culture is especially good at it.  We’re the only country in the world that looks at major storms growing stronger and these weird fluctuations of floods and droughts and the ice caps melting and say, “Oh, it’s just a normal statistical variation.  You have to expect this every thousand years or so.”

            It’s a cultural thing, but I would be bold enough to speculate that it’s a more generally human characteristic.  Call it denial, call it avoidance, call it good manners – it’s all the same.  As they say, Jews don’t recognize Jesus, Protestants don’t recognize the pope, and Methodists don’t recognize each other at the state store.  In the long run, though, letting things go unnamed and unaddressed is harmful and destructive.  The whole crisis of abuse that the Catholics are facing right now could easily have been forestalled if it had been dealt with straightforwardly early on.  But scandal is a terrible thing.  Human beings have never, ever been good with scandal.  We have made a habit of burying those who bring it to light.  I mean really burying them.

            Cain and Abel were two brothers who did not get along.  The last straw came, though, when Cain (who was a farmer) offered fruit and vegetables as a burnt sacrifice and Abel (who was a herdsman) offered meat.  Have you ever tried to set fire to a carrot or a cucumber?  The upshot was, according to Genesis,

“The Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” [Genesis 4:4-5]

It wasn’t that the Lord loved one brother more than the other, but Cain just didn’t connect as well.  His solution was to get rid of his brother, whom he felt had shown him up and made him look bad.  By “get rid of” I mean that he killed him. 

It became a pattern.  It’s all over the Bible.  David served as one of King Saul’s officers and when people commented publicly that he had been more successful than his commander-in-chief, Saul stewed on it to the point where he became so jealous that more than once he threw his spear at David (who eventually realized the problem and cleared out).  The prophets would warn people that they were on a bad path, telling them for their own good, and that would enrage whatever king was running the show, and it did not generally go well for the prophet.  There’s a story of how Jeremiah survived only because when they threw him into a cistern, nobody checked to see that there was any water in it.  He landed in mud, and lived until somebody talked the king into changing his mind and they hauled him out again.  Jesus himself cried over the city where that so often happened:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” [Luke 13:34]

He was very aware of how things went.  It is what would happen to him.  It is how things are done.  I should say add, “at least by us,” because God does not work that way. 

            If the resurrection shows us one thing, it is that God does not play by our rules.

            God created a big problem for us when he sent Jesus.  Even the most faithful of the prophets fell short at some point.  Elijah could confront four hundred priests of the idol Baal and put them to shame.  One man against four hundred.  One man with God on his side, of course.  Then afterward he got word that Queen Jezebel was angry with him, and he ran away.  Moses had his problems with pride, and Jonah held grudges.  Obadiah got mad at some children because they made fun of his bald head, and summoned a bear to eat them. 

            And that’s a problem for us.  We like to say, and we all do say, “I’m only human,” and think and feel that somehow being human means we can be excused from being the human being we are meant to be.  But Jesus?  He was the one human being ever to live without sin.  He was the one person to live totally within God’s vision, spotless from start to finish.  Peter’s speech in Acts that we heard this morning recalls

“how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” [Acts 10:38]

A sinless man, however, shows up a sinful world in ways that fill us with unbearable shame. 

He could and did and does ask those embarrassing questions that break open our agreed-upon silence.  Just by being who he is, he is a sort of truth-teller who says, “How can we say we love God and treat God’s world with contempt and treat God’s children as nothing?”  Sometimes he used humor to make us laugh at ourselves.  He told a parable about how we go around pointing out the speck in each other’s eye while we have a log sticking out of our own. [Luke 6:41]  The folks who were looked down on loved him right away.  Those who did the looking-down, not so much, though.  And when he was serious, he could be very serious.  Just ask the moneychangers in the Temple whose tables he flipped over.  Eventually, he was too much to take.  The conflict was inevitable, and the consequences.

“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.” [Acts 10:39]

 And if the story stopped there, it would have been just one more example of a good man in a bad world, 

“but God raised him up on the third day and allowed him to appear”.  [Acts 10:40]

 That move, of course, totally destroys the effectiveness of our human strategy of pretending that we are in charge.  It ruins our strategy of relying on secretive or not so secretive acts of injustice to cover up our shortcomings, because if Jesus is alive again (and he is), then he’s out there in the world still doing everything he’s ever done: doing good and healing and undoing oppression of every sort, and calling our hearts into question when we settle for anything less than the kingdom of God and his righteousness. 

Yes, he stands in judgment of us, of all of us.  But that’s good news, because he is not judging to condemn, but judging to set right, and there is mercy in everything he does.

“He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.  All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” [Acts 10:43]

You can, if you want, see it this way: he is a judge who sentences us to community service, whose way is not to throw anyone away, but to put them to use so that they can be part of something far greater than themselves.  He became like us that we might become like him.

“Soar we now where Christ has led,

Following our exalted head.

Made like him, like him we rise:

Ours the cross, the grave, the skies.

Alleluia!”

"Crushed" - April 18, 2019 (Maundy Thursday)

 Psalm 143:1-10

            Crushing is a major part of preparing food.

 

            To make bread, you need flour, and flour is made by taking grain and crushing it to powder between two large, heavy millstones.  To make wine, which was a staple part of the diet in ancient Israel, grapes had to be put into vats and the liquid crushed out of them for fermentation and storage.

 

            The bread and the wine that were on the table at the Last Supper, the items that Jesus designated for use as an ongoing reminder of his continuing presence among his disciples, were items that intrinsically bear the message of what happened to him in the course of his suffering and death.  His body was beaten, like grain is beaten with a flail to separate the kernels of wheat from the husk, and ground by the weight of the cross that he was forced to carry.  His breathing would be cut off by his own weight pressing down against his lungs and diaphragm in his hours on the cross.  His blood would go everywhere, not just from the nail wounds, but from being whipped and having thorns pressed down onto his scalp, from abrasions and bruises, and eventually from a spear being jabbed into his corpse.

 

            In the course of all of that, there would be the attempt to crush him not only physically, but also emotionally and mentally. 

 

“For the enemy has pursued me,
   crushing my life to the ground,
   making me sit in darkness like those long dead. 
Therefore my spirit faints within me;
   my heart within me is appalled.”
[Psalm 143:3-4] 


When Jesus cried out at one point, “I thirst!” it was the physical thirst that comes to anyone with the terrible loss of blood and being exposed in the sun for hours.  I cannot believe it wasn’t also the thirst of the spirit that comes in the midst of torment.

 

“I stretch out my hands to you;
   my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.
Answer me quickly, O Lord;
   my spirit fails.
Do not hide your face from me,
   or I shall be like those who go down to the Pit.”
[Psalm 143:6-7] 

 

            Yet on that table, too, had probably been another crushed item.  All around the Mediterranean, fresh olives were harvested and taken to presses where they were crushed and the oil that came off them was captured and used for cooking or to dip bread into or just poured onto other food like we might use butter.  And the olives were put through not just one pressing, but were crushed a second and maybe a third time.  Crushing the olives gave oil not only for food, but also to be used in lamps to give light, as Jesus spoke about in his parables.

 

Moreover, the oil was used ritually by the people of Israel.  Poured on the head of a king or a priest or a prophet, anointing designated someone to a role in the establishment of God’s will upon earth as it is in heaven.  One who was anointed this way was called, in the Greek language of that day, Cristos, “Christ”.  It’s a title of honor, but dependent on the act of crushing, and when applied to Jesus in the way that we have come to apply it to him alone, it connects to what he bore for us.

 

Only because Jesus also underwent the crushing presented again and again in the broken bread and the full cup would he fulfill his place as the Christ, the Anointed One, as a prophet of God, as the priestly one who offered a sacrifice equal to the sin of the world, as the king who rules from a cross instead of a throne and with love instead of fear.

 

            Isaiah had spoken of the Suffering Servant, the Christ, the Messiah, as one whose pains would bring healing to others. So

 

“he was wounded for our transgressions,
   crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
   and by his bruises we are healed.” 
[Isaiah 53:5]

 

He would face the injustice of the world’s judgment, and it would crush him, but it would also lead to the judgment of the world by God, and that would in turn bring a restoration far beyond what anyone could have foreseen.

 

“By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
   Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
   stricken for the transgression of my people. 
They made his grave with the wicked
   and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
   and there was no deceit in his mouth. 


Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.
When you make his life an offering for sin,
   he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. 
   Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
   The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
   and he shall bear their iniquities. 
Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
   and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out himself to death,
   and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
   and made intercession for the transgressors.”
[Isaiah 53:8-12]

 

"Heights and Depths" - April 14, 2019 (Palm Sunday)

Psalm 130

 

            Many years ago, when Philadelphia was making a real push to start the redevelopment of the Delaware River waterfront, one of the first, trendy restaurant-plus places that opened up was called the Beach Club.  It was just north of Penn’s Landing, and its big feature was a crane that went out over the water for bungee jumping.  A group of around seven or eight of us who were working together in Frankford at the time were all in our late twenties or early thirties, just the right demographic for that kind of adventure.  I have no idea whose idea it was, but somehow an agreement was reached that one Friday evening we would meet at the Beach Club to hang out and if anybody in the group wanted to bungee jump we would all split the cost evenly among us.

 

            So there we were at 7:00 or so, watching people lifted up to the top of the crane, almost even with the level of the Ben Franklin Bridge, just off to the left.  Then a horn would blow and off they went, headfirst, almost but not quite hitting the top of the river, and bouncing around upside-down a couple of times before being lowered to a kind of sandbox built for the purpose.  You could see them from where we were, removing their helmets and letting the blood drain back into their bodies from where it had pooled in their skulls.  Of course, these folks were all laughing and you could see how exhilarating it had been, so there was a lot of pointing and nudging in our group.

 

Around 9:00 we were still debating who wanted to go first.  By that point, the question of whether it was a good idea to bungee jump on a full stomach had been raised.  10:00 came and went, and the quality of the band was more of a preoccupation.  11:00 and the list was probably too full for the rest of the night to bother.  Then people started leaving, and that meant that the cost would go up a little and not everybody would get to watch anyhow.  There was some talk of maybe another time, but it never really got to that point, because there were other things to do and see that summer.

 

            Maybe there are a few people who are made for that kind of thing, but it wasn’t us.  And we knew it.  You’d have to be trying to do something pretty big to pull a stunt like that, trying to prove something to someone (maybe yourself, even), and none of us in that group were in that boat.  In fact, following through on something that dangerous to impress coworkers would probably have had the opposite effect.  Could you trust the judgment of someone who would bungee jump from a crane on Delaware Avenue?  Probably not.

 

            Yet everybody there that evening, I feel safe in saying, had already decided to take a longer-term jump in how they would live their lives, consciously taking a step out in faith.  They were all living and working in positions of Christian service that they knew would not put them in control very often.  If they found themselves at the top of things, that might be just when Jesus told them to jump, and it might be just as they thought things were about to end in a destructive landing or, at best, a horrible splash, that would be just when they felt the tug of the safety line catch them and pull them back.

 

            One man who was there was a brilliant guy who had chosen, very consciously, to go into social work and help children who were at risk.  He understood them, because his own mother, who was single, had died when he was six.  Now there he was, having come through a lot, and doing well when, about a year after this bungee-watching party, one of the parents he worked with was charged with neglect and abuse of a toddler, leading to the child’s death.  He, as the caseworker, went through a very public investigation.  He was totally cleared, but the toll it took on him was incredible.  He looked at his own competence and performance much more rigorously than the official investigators. 

 

“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.

            Lord, hear my voice!

Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,

            Lord, who could stand?” [Psalm 130:1-3]

 

What helped was the awareness that if he had not been involved in the situation, there were other children who might have ended up the same way, and he had prevented that. 

 

“But there is forgiveness with you,

            so that you may be revered.” [Psalm 130:4]

 

            It took a lot out of him, but God’s grace was there.  That is what allows real discipleship that makes a difference, which always matches Jesus’ pattern of surrendering the glory and the good report and the safety and the warm fuzzies to go into the places that call for healing and the power of God.  Jesus left heaven for earth, and then left this life on earth by way of a cross and the darkness of the grave.  For us.  Those who follow him, follow him.  For others.  Along the way they may call out

 

“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!

Lord, hear my voice!

Let your ears be attentive

to the voice of my supplications!” [Psalm 130:1-2]

 

Their voices, their whole being, may scream out like someone bungee jumping, having that stomach-churning second when they suddenly realize what commitment means.

 

            Don’t think Jesus didn’t have his own second thoughts.  Oh, his last week began well enough, with the crowds cheering him, and waving palms, and shouting his name.  But by Thursday the tide had turned and he was on the ground in the Garden of Gethsemane praying that if he could possibly be spared all that lay before him, that God would take it away.  Even on the cross he called out to ask where God was, why he who had begun in the glory of eternity, the very glory of God the Father, was now turned over to the angry maw of a fearful system that had condemned him to a slow and painful death, surrounded by mockery and filled with a sense of total failure and the weight of the sins of the whole world, with no one able to help.  Only a handful of his friends would even stick around and there would be nothing they could do.  He would quote a different psalm:

 

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Psalm 22:1]

 

And yet, those who cry from the depths are those whom the Lord hears.  Those who cry out from their hearts in real faith, are those on whom the Lord has mercy. 

 

            On January 7 of this year, that social worker I mentioned, the one who could easily have given up on it all, was sworn in as the Superintendent of Public Instruction for the entire state of California.  He’s sort of taking another dive into service.  He was in the state legislature for four years where he at least had a vote on the budget.  Now he has less actual political power, having chosen to forgo it.  In the speech he gave that day

 

“He reflected on the fact that the state schools chief does not have direct responsibility for what happens in districts around the state. ‘It’s a hard job,’ he said.  ‘This is the kind of job when you get all the blame for what goes wrong, but you don’t have the resources to fix what needs to be fixed.’

‘I accept those challenges,’ he said.”[1]

 

Christian discipleship is following a king who rides a mule, not a stallion.  It means walking the way of one who turned his back on life in heaven itself to be with us.  It means going into situations where we know we cannot win or will not succeed – at least in the ways that the world defines winning or success – and going in with our eyes wide open to the realities involved.  It means praying, like Jesus,

 

“yet, not my will but yours be done.” [Luke 22:42]

 

Christian discipleship means faith and trust and reliance on God in those times when you are powerless and everything around is turned upside down and you’re hurtling toward who-knows-what but you say,

 

“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,

            and in his word I hope;

my soul waits for the Lord

            more than those who watch for the morning,

            more than those who watch for the morning.” [Psalm 130:5-6]


[1] https://edsource.org/2019/tony-thurmond-sworn-in-as-new-state-superintendent-of-public-instruction/606761

"Owning Up" - March 31, 2019

            There are only nine out of a hundred and fifty Psalms that have a line at the beginning identifying the occasion of their composition.  This is one of them, and what an occasion it was.

 

“A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”

 

Here’s the story as it appears in II Samuel [11:1-13].

 

“In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.

 

 It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, ‘This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.’ So David sent messengers to fetch her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house. The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, ‘I am pregnant.’

 

 So David sent word to Joab, ‘Send me Uriah the Hittite.’ And Joab sent Uriah to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab and the people fared, and how the war was going. Then David said to Uriah, ‘Go down to your house, and wash your feet.’ Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king. But Uriah slept at the entrance of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. When they told David, ‘Uriah did not go down to his house’, David said to Uriah, ‘You have just come from a journey. Why did you not go down to your house?’ Uriah said to David, ‘The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing.’ Then David said to Uriah, ‘Remain here today also, and tomorrow I will send you back.’ So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day. On the next day, David invited him to eat and drink in his presence and made him drunk; and in the evening he went out to lie on his couch with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house.” 

 

David was stuck, and he was desperate.  He sent Uriah back to the combat zone with a letter to his general, Joab.  It said,

 

“Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then withdraw from him, so that he may be struck down and die.” [II Samuel 11:15]

 

Joab followed orders, and Uriah died, along with several others who were totally uninvolved with the situation.  Back in Jerusalem, shortly after that, David married the grieving widow and she bore him a son.

 

            The coverup was complete.  A few people had died, but the king’s reputation was intact.  There was no public scandal.  Uriah’s friends and the other officers did not rise in revolt or out of fear what might happen to their own wives while they were on duty.  If there was any suspicion anywhere, David still had full deniability.  All would be forgotten quickly, at least by everyone other than Bathsheba and David.  Life could go on.  New wars could be fought.  New palace intrigues could be planned.  Maybe David would look out from his roof again the following spring, and see an even prettier woman, this time without the marital encumbrances or, as Bathsheba would have by then, a child to care for.

 

            Nathan the prophet, for instance, could keep bothering David with minor conflicts and problems among the people that they should have been able to sort out for themselves.  For instance,

 

“He came to him, and said to him, ‘There were two men in a certain city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meagre fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.’ Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, ‘As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.’” [II Samuel 12:1-6]

 

That was an easy one.  “Next case!” Then

 

“Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man!’” [II Samuel 12:7]

 

            What do you do?  What do you do when your entire public image is shattered?  What do you do if you suddenly realize that the face you have shown to the world is shown to be a mask?  What do you do if you come face-to-face with the worst deeds of your own life, things that you have tried to put behind you and to bury so that not even you yourself have to look at them?

 

            What if something you have done somewhere along the line is incapable of being put right with an apology, or even some kind of reparation?  No amount of “Sorry!” could bring Uriah back to life.  No number of “Mistakes were made” could undo the destruction of Bathsheba’s reputation (not that she probably had much choice in any of this) or restore the potential damage to the trust that was vital between David and his army and his subjects as a whole.  He could no longer be the big hero, the giant-killer, the musician-king, without also being the abuser of power, with blood on his hands.

 

            Do you go out on the palace balcony and give a speech where you say, “People have got to know whether or not their king is a crook.  Well, I’m not a crook.”?  Do you gather all your courtiers around you and say, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Bathsheba.”? Or do you look your accuser directly in the eyes and say,

 

“I have sinned against the Lord.”? [II Samuel 12:13] 

 

That’s what David did. 

 

            None of us is without sin.  Remember the story of how a woman was caught in the act of adultery and dragged in front of Jesus, with the crowd demanding he pronounce sentence on her so that they could stone her.  He did not deny that was the sentence set out in the Law.  But what he said was

 

“Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. …When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.” [John 8:7,9]

 

So, too, David found himself alone with God, staring at his life, hearing his conscience tell him over and over the story of his failures.  And he owned up to them.

 

“Have mercy on me, O God,
   according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
   blot out my transgressions. 
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
   and cleanse me from my sin. 


For I know my transgressions,
   and my sin is ever before me. 
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
   and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
   and blameless when you pass judgement. 
Indeed, I was born guilty,
   a sinner when my mother conceived me.”
[Psalm 51:1-5]

 

But he also owned up to God’s power to change his life from what it was to what it could become.

 

“Create in me a clean heart, O God,
   and put a new and right spirit within me. 
Do not cast me away from your presence,
   and do not take your holy spirit from me. 
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
   and sustain in me a willing spirit. 


Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
   and sinners will return to you. 
Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
   O God of my salvation,
   and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.”
[Psalm 51:10-14] 

 

            This whole episode marked the beginning of years of struggle for David as king, because there would be fallout and consequences from what he had done.  But it also brought the proclamation of a kind of mercy that he could now speak of in a clear and convincing way, of a kind of genuine righteousness that has nothing to do with our own piety or fitness, but comes directly from God and totally by God’s grace, because

 

“The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
   a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
[Psalm 51:17]