“What Good Is the Bible?” - October 20, 2019

II Timothy 3:14-4:5

            I get asked a lot of questions that I can’t answer.  Why does this or that happen?  What is heaven like?  How does God relate to people who have never heard about Jesus?  Is it wrong to kill in self-defense?  At what point does flirting become adultery?  Does buying insurance indicate a lack of faith?  How far do you obey a government that may be unjust?

I like it when someone asks me a direct question that I can answer easily.  That happened not too long ago.  Someone made a remark that I don’t remember verbatim but basically amounted to “What good is the Bible?”  At the time I gave an answer that said something along the lines that it provides us a dependable record of the interaction of God and people that gives us guidance on how to lead our lives.  I said something about how even though our circumstances change, neither human nature nor God change, so we have reliable patterns even in confusing times.  I would stand by those statements.  The thing is that the Bible itself addresses the question. 

The second letter to Timothy was written as (obviously) a letter.  When it was written it was not done with the notion that it would become part of what the letter itself calls “the sacred writings” [3:15].  To those who wrote the letter, who received the letter, and who preserved it for later reference, the term “scripture” [3:16] referred to the Hebrew scriptures that we generally now call the Old Testament.  So when II Timothy speaks about “sacred writings” and “scripture” it is not patting itself on the back or making claims for itself.  The business of assigning authority to this letter came later, from others. 

Later on, over a period of centuries, the Church sorted through a lot of writings.  There were some that we decided were not worth hanging onto.  Every so often somebody thinks they are the first to discover one of these says, “Oh!  Look!  The ‘Gospel of Thomas’!  or ‘Eugnostos the Blessed’!” as if their existence were some great secret and we have to say, “Yeah, we decided seventeen hundred years ago that they didn’t make the cut.” 

Then there were writings where we saw something special and worthwhile: writings like the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John or the letters of people like Paul and John and James.  People read them over and over and found that somehow in the process, the voice of God spoke to their hearts. 

They also used their heads, and their best judgment.  Among the tests of what would be worth keeping has been whether such writings would make a difference in the believers’ lives.  To that end, we can and do ask that they fit the criteria found in II Timothy, where the question, “What good is the Bible?” is actually asked and answered.

So here we go.

“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” [II Timothy 3:16-17]

That’s a favorite verse of fundamentalists who believe that every word of the Bible was dictated directly to the writers by the Holy Spirit.  Those who hold to that kind of understanding of inspiration necessarily get into trouble at some point where the world of the Bible differs sharply from our own.  Fundamentalism digs its heels in to oppose the teaching of evolution for that reason, and some very intelligent people will go to great lengths to try to explain away what the vast majority of scientists and reasonable people will see as evidence that it took a whole lot longer than six days for the world to take its present form and for life to arise. 

Ironically, the same mistake is made by people who would dismiss the Bible.  People who think of themselves as so much more sophisticated and wise than the Bible’s authors will scorn the scriptures as no more than a bunch of quaint stories and legends and the record of ancient civilizations that we have far surpassed.

            Inspiration, however, is not the same as dictation.  I may be inspired by the sunrise.  When I see it, I may first react simply to its beauty.  Perhaps it stops there.  Or maybe I gain an awareness of beginnings in general, or a sense that that particular day holds a chance at a fresh start.  I may take encouragement.  In time I may see one special sunrise and suddenly believe that God is making a point.

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,

            his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning.” [Lamentations 3:23]

Someone else might see the sunrise and see that the earth is spinning on its axis from west to east on a regular schedule.  While that is true, if it’s all that you see, in my view, you are missing the point.  Inspiration is what comes from God breathing into a human being.  (No, I don’t mean that literally, either.)  But the Bible says in Genesis that human life begins with God’s breath (which can also mean “spirit”) finding its way into what would otherwise be a lump of dirt.

            Likewise, the inspiration of the scriptures comes along multiple times, like breathing.  It arises the first time when someone has become aware of God acting in the world in some particular way.  Someone saw God at work in the lives of Abraham and Sarah and their family, or in the politics of the kingdom of Israel, or in courtship and marriage.  They set them down in what became Genesis, or I and II Chronicles, or the Song of Solomon.  The inspiration is there, and it arose in the creative meeting between the stuff of earth and the breath of God.

            But it does not end when the experience is recorded.  Sure, if you read the written words and that is all they are to you, or perhaps fine literature at best, you have something that is akin to the many other wonderful books in the world.  When you read it or hear it, though, with expectation and awareness of God, the confidence that God speaks through these words, there is room for another moment of inspiration that says something directly to you. 

            The example I like to give goes back eighteen years at this point, to a Tuesday morning in September.  It was September 11, to be exact.  I don’t need to tell you what that day was like.  But that evening I opened my Bible wondering what to say from the pulpit the next Sunday, and I started with what was the regular, appointed Old Testament selection.  It was Jeremiah 4:19-20.

“My anguish, my anguish!  I writhe in pain!

            Oh, the walls of my heart!

My heart is beating wildly;

            I cannot keep silent;

for I hear the sound of the trumpet,

            the alarm of war.

Disaster overtakes disaster,

            the whole land is laid waste.

Suddenly my tents are destroyed,

            my curtains in a moment.” 

 How often, at the hardest times or at the happiest, are we given words for what lies unspeakable within our hearts.

            What good is the Bible?  Alone, it is just another book.  In the hands of faith, or even of those seeking faith, it comes alive with the breath of God.  And then God can mold us and shape us, using it as a tool to teach us how to be more human and how to be more holy.  It becomes

“useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”. [II Timothy 3:16]

 It doesn’t just give us word-for-word instructions, but it teaches us the ways of life that go with faith.  It tells us of Jesus, the Messiah, God-with-us.  It puts forth how he used the scriptures to defeat temptation, even when the devil tried to misuse scripture to ensnare him.  It tells how he taught us to look beyond the letter of the law to keep its spirit.  It tells how he used the words of scripture to pray, even speaking a verse of the Psalms on the cross.

            What good is the Bible?  It gives us what we need to build one another up, and together to build the kingdom of God.  It gives us a whole set of tools to use for different tasks, and it does that

“so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” [II Timothy 3:17]

That’s what good it is.  You won’t find anything better.

 

 

 

"Doing Things Out of Order" - October 13, 2019

Luke 17:11-19

 

            Illness often involves physical separation by its very nature.  Someone who is sick may simply be unable to get around.  It could be from physical weakness.  It could be from pain.  Even a temporary illness means not being able to get around. You’re lying in bed with the flu or some kind of fever and you hear other people downstairs or outside, and you feel not quite lonely but separate in a way that can be worse.  Or maybe you are around people and some sort of ache or pain kicks in and that’s all you can think about.  Conversation is going on around you and you try to follow what is being said, but you just can’t focus on anything but the throbbing in your left knee or the feeling that your back is about to spasm again.

            A sense of isolation often accompanies depression.  There’s a quotation from the songwriter Fiona Apple that’s all over the internet, but always as a quotation and never with a source or context, but it puts her experience of depression this way:

“When you're surrounded by all these people, it can be lonelier than when you're by yourself. You can be in a huge crowd, but if you don't feel like you can trust anyone or talk to anybody, you feel like you're really alone.”

The pain of isolation may be sharpened when it is not a symptom, but something imposed on someone who is already suffering.

            At the time of Jesus, people who were afflicted with leprosy found themselves cut off from most human contact.  It was a step that was taken for the survival of the entire community, but it was not done lightly or in a knee-jerk way. 

            The book of Leviticus assigns the care of public health to the priests.  Chapters 13 and 14 give detailed instructions on how to evaluate whether a rash is just a temporary skin irritation or an indication of a more dangerous underlying disease, like leprosy, that could endanger not just the individual but everyone around them.  The Law specified a temporary period of separation to allow observation before any kind of permanent exile was imposed.  And before we condemn that step as uncaring or harsh, we have to admit that we still take same similar steps to prevent one person’s infection from turning into a general contagion.  If you have ever gone to see someone in an isolation room at the hospital, you know what it is to use a gown and mask and gloves so that there is always some sort of barrier against infection.  In extreme cases, ebola or Marburg virus, the isolation involves caregivers dressed in something like spacesuits.

            The Law also made provisions for how to certify when a disease, specifically leprosy, might have somehow cleared up.  When that happened, the person had to stay outside the settlement, for safety, and the priest would go to them to do an examination.  There would be more waiting periods to ensure that the disease wasn’t simply in remission, but eventually the healthy person could return to regular life.  When Jesus told these ten lepers,

“Go and show yourselves to the priests,” [Luke 17:14]

that is the process that he was sending them into.  Jesus being Jesus, though, he rushes things.  He sent them to the priest before they were healed.  Luke says it was

“as they went, they were made clean.” [Luke 17:14]

They went from him in faith, not having seen the miracle, but acting on his assurance.  There’s a whole sermon in that for another time.

            One of their number, though, was a Samaritan. [Luke 17:16]  Under normal circumstances, he and the other nine would have had nothing to do with one another.  But if illness often separates people, there are times when it forces them together. There are stories throughout the Bible that include groups of lepers, people who, cut off from regular society, were pushed together by need.  It was a matter of survival, and other considerations disappeared.  If you cannot use your hands any longer, you are not going to quibble over the ethnicity of the person who is willing to lift your food to your mouth.  If you cannot walk without pain, you do not care about social status when someone offers you a shoulder to lean on.  And if you have been excluded from all that you have ever known – your home, your family, your work, your friends – there will be at least some shred of comfort that comes from the understanding of those who have shared the same loss.

            Now this Samaritan man, one of the ten men healed by Jesus that day, was made physically whole, but could not show himself to the Jewish priests as he had been directed, since the stigma that they attached to his birth would keep them from having anything to do with him.  He would be healed and could return to his family and his community, but would go through the process of reincorporation among them under the guidance of Samaritan priests (who shared the same scriptures on this point), and be expected by them to remain apart from the other nine who had been with him in his trouble.  Friends were taken from him by his illness and friends were taken from him by his healing.

It’s all the more startling, then, that he returned first to thank Jesus, because he was a Jew.  Or maybe he did that first so that no one could tell him not to do it.  And it’s also startling on Jesus’ side, not only because he had dealings with a Samaritan – that happened more than once – but because he told this man,

“Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” [Luke 17:19]

The official line would not have recognized this man as having faith or would have said that he had the wrong kind.  Jesus saw someone who had already taken a chance on him, and Jesus was ready to return the favor.

            Jesus saves.  He did then, and he does now.  Jesus saves on the basis of faith, which is not a matter of getting every religious ceremony correct or performing exactly the proper number of good deeds.  Faith is trust.  Faith is hearing the voice of someone who could rightfully and without a shred of hypocrisy send you away in tears but instead offers kindness and compassion that even common sense says is dangerous and inadvisable.  Faith is being equally open and willing to take him as he is, so that when he says that he is the way, the truth, and the life, you’re ready to say, “Okay, then show me what kind of life you’re talking about.”  All that business about forgiving our enemies flows from being forgiven.  All that bit about turning the other cheek comes from knowing that he did that himself.  And his promises about eternal life, even when age or accident or some sort of sickness finally does catch up with us?  Faith means taking him at his word about that, too, with the added help that his other friends have given us of having seen him return to life himself.

            That faith makes us well.  I say that not because I have a lot of confidence in people who wave their hands around and then push someone backward shouting, “In the name of Jesus!”  I say that because I have seen enough people with deeper problems than even the best doctors can address find a healing of the soul that comes just from the awareness that God is loving and merciful and on their side.  John Wesley wrote:

“It is hard to find words in the language of men to explain all the deep things of God.  Indeed, there are none that will adequately express what the children of God experience.  But perhaps one might say that the testimony of the Spirit is an inward impression on the soul, whereby the Spirit of God directly witnesses to my spirit, that I am a child of God; that Jesus Christ hath loved me and given himself for me; and that all my sins are blotted out, and I, even I, am reconciled to God.”[1]


[1] Cited in Reuben Job and Norman Shawchuck, A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants (Nashville: Upper Room Press, 1983), 403.

“Who and What” - October 6, 2019

II Timothy 1:1-14

 

            There has been no end of dispute and argument among Christians over the past two thousand years.  Despite Jesus’ pleas, the disciples who lived and traveled with him, who learned directly from him about the kingdom of God, who saw him perform miracles, and who became the witnesses to his resurrection from death never managed to get along with one another perfectly. 

  The gospels record an incident where they get into an argument among themselves about which of them is the greatest, like some sort of first-century Twitter fight.  The people who came to prominence in the Christian community just after them often had the same discussion, at times framed around the importance of different forms of ministry.  Paul had to ask the Christians in Corinth to look good and hard at the situation among them and to see that the Holy Spirit had spread a variety of gifts among them so that they could see their need of one another.

 “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?” [I Corinthians 12:29-30]

Of course, the same apostle Paul who wrote these words was just as human as them, and he is recorded as having had his arguments with one of the original disciples, Peter, and even with James, Jesus’ own brother.

            Paul’s arguments with them were over doctrine more than personality, although when you read his letters you can get a clear sense that there is at least some of that there, too.  (Read through the book of Galatians, where he recounts who said and did what to whom.  You cannot miss it.)  At base, though, he is trying to establish the faith on the basis of faith in Jesus and Jesus’ love held out for everybody.  That also forced him to recognize the difference between adversaries and enemies. 

            So, time and time across the centuries, Christians have argued and disagreed.  At times (and may God forgive us all for letting acrimony go this far) we have let anger turn into violence.  Even so, when the smoke has cleared, we have continually come back to the point where we say that there is some bond that holds us together.

            It is not that we read the same Bible.  There are books that some people judge to be authoritative and others do not.  We (“we” being the Protestants) call these “The Apocrypha”.  The Roman Catholics just consider them part of the Holy Scriptures.  But on the basis of some points in these books, the Catholics have developed the notion of purgatory, a place for souls to work out repentance after death; the Protestants emphasize, instead, the full and entire forgiveness of sin here and now through Jesus having taken our sin onto his own shoulders on the cross.  Those are major differences, and they matter.  But they are not enough that (with the exception of a few unusual people on both sides) we would say that the people on the other side of this division are not also Christians.

            It is not that we worship the same way.  Compare, if you will, the elaborate ceremonies of the Eastern Orthodox with a group of Quakers sitting down in a room and waiting silently for the Holy Spirit to speak.  You can also flip that around and have two churches that worship in ways that seem basically interchangeable, say your average United Methodist and Presbyterian congregations.  It would not be on a Sunday morning, but on some weeknight in an administrative meeting of some sort, that you would discover very different understandings of the nature of the church.  Even so, no one in these spots would go so far as to say that they, and they only, are Christian.

            What holds us together, and brings us together again when we push one another away, is not a “what” but a “who”.

“I know the one in whom I have put my trust,” [II Timothy 1:12]

Paul told Timothy.  And, yes, he also told him,

“Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me,”

 but Paul told Timothy to do that

“in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”  [II Timothy 1:13]

  Once upon a time, we argued over whether Christians could eat pork.  That’s all over the book of Acts.  (The Seventh Day Adventists, by the way, are often vegetarians for religious reasons.)  But no one denies that Jesus sat down to eat with sinners, and in doing so called them back to the righteousness and wholeness of God.  The Eastern and Western churches split over what language to use in worship (and that came up again at the Reformation) and also over the question of whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, or just from the Father.  But we never deny that the Spirit is at work to bring people everywhere to faith.  Right now, at least in our branch of Christianity, we’re arguing over the place of LGBT people.  No one on either side of that issue, however, disputes that God

“saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.” [II Timothy 1:9]

And I could go on and on.  In fact, I am sure that down the road there will arise all kinds of unforeseen differences about what it means to live according to that “holy calling”. 

            The one thing I am sure of, though, is the love of the Savior who calls.  It is the message of that love that goes out into all the world, through all his people.  So,

 “Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.” [II Timothy 1:14]

“The Thirsty” - September 29, 2019

Luke 16:19-31

            Last week at the second service, when Rich Gibson passed out, he came to and asked for a drink of water, and a couple of people brought some.  I kind of blocked that, so let me explain.  When somebody faints, it may very well be because of dehydration, and a drink of water will help that.  But when they collapse as a result of the fainting, it’s possible that they might have broken something or done some other kind of damage that somebody without medical training cannot assess.  If there were a broken bone, though, and it had to be set, or if any other injury were found that might require anaesthesia, one of the first questions that’s going to be asked is if the person has had anything to eat or drink recently.  They need to know that to avoid the possibility of it coming back up and creating a dangerous situation.  That’s why nobody’s allowed to eat or drink before surgery.

             But it isn’t easy to see someone who is thirsty and say, “No.”  Water is kind of basic.  There are times when all somebody needs is just a little sip or an ice chip on their tongue to feel better.  That fact lies at the heart of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

 “In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.  He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’” [Luke 16:23-24]

Interesting, isn’t it, that the rich man still seemed to think of Lazarus as subservient, someone to be ordered about for his convenience and comfort, even in the afterlife? 

             Abraham tried to explain to the rich man that the roles they held on earth no longer applied.  In fact, in their cases, they were reversed.

 “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.” [Luke 16:25]

 Moreover, Abraham tells him, there’s not a thing he can do about that now.  This man does not seem to have been totally heartless, though.  At least he cared about his own brothers.  But again, he wants Lazarus to be his servant, his messenger boy, to give them one of those spooky warnings like Dickens pictured for Ebenezer Scrooge: “In life I was Jacob Marley…”  Of course, Dickens pictures Marley’s ghost itself appearing, not sending a message second-hand.  This man, the one burning with torment and thirst, still does not get it.  He cares about himself first, then he cares about his brothers, but he still does not really care about Lazarus.

            Abraham’s answer to him recognizes that.  He knows full well that this man and his brothers are cut from the same cloth.  If he had ignored Lazarus in his comings and goings, his brothers had also done the same thing.  They had all seen the man’s need and had ignored it.  They had all gone on feeding themselves and spending money on fancy clothes while he starved. 

            (By the way, this is not going to be a feel-good sermon.  It’s not a feel-good parable.  Not unless you’re on the Lazarus end of things, and to be honest, very few people in the U.S. or Canada or Western Europe fall into that category.)

            It’s one of the big annoyances of the scriptures that you have to ignore them in order to ignore poverty, even if you live (as we do) inside an insulated capsule where we can avoid its most troublesome forms.  Sure, people go through rough times.  But there are often resources to help, if only they can find them – and there are people who care and who do try to help.  But there is also a profound kind of poverty that we manage to hold at arm’s length because, once seen it cannot be unseen.  The scriptures make us look, even to the degree where we have to make a conscious choice not to see, and to become the person holding his ears and saying, “La-la-la!” not to hear.  Abraham (and, by telling this story, Jesus himself) says of those who are feasting while others starve,

“They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” [Luke 16:29]

The rich man says that the scriptures are not enough.  He is told – and this is harsh, but it’s exactly on point –

“If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead?”  [Luke 16:31]

Some people don’t get it, and some people work at not getting it, because they really do.

            This parable hurts.  It hurts because it needs no real interpretation or explanation.  It hurts because trying to soften it shows which side of the gate we – okay, I – live on.  Just go back to the availability of water.  There has been a multi-year drought in Central America.  That is part of what has driven some people to leave their lands and look for a way to survive.  Some have joined criminal gangs and driven yet other people to run from violence.  So people leave their homes out of desperation and multiple fears, and then find themselves, exactly like Lazarus, sitting for months or longer outside closed gates, being told they cannot come in.  There are those in lands where the Sahara and other deserts are expanding, and they get pushed out in the same way.  Some of them fall into the hands of modern slave-traders.  Some of them get stuck in refugee camps.  Some of them try to cross the Mediterranean in leaky boats and, if they reach safety, also get stuck in horrible conditions waiting for their paperwork to clear or to be sent back to the starting line.

             This parable hurts because it gives a name to the man at the gates.  We can talk about the nameless poor, but they are not nameless.  The rich man and his brothers go nameless.  The poor man lying at the gate, with the dogs taking pity on him the way that the people inside the gate do not – that man is the only person in all of Jesus’ parables who has a name.  “Lazarus” is the Greek form of the Hebrew “Eliezer”, which means “God is my help.” 

             I would say this: that Jesus calls us to really and truly see that man.  He is not just someone to order around, a bit character in our stories.  He is not someone who can be used, either as a messenger or as a cautionary tale.  He is a person, someone that we know is out there and who calls upon God for help.  It may be someone whose situation is so heartbreaking that we cannot bear to see him or to hear his voice, but the only thing that will keep us from losing our own souls is to look and to listen, and not for our own sake, but for his.

             That is the word, I fear, not just of Moses and the prophets, but of someone who called out, when he was dying,

“I thirst!” [John 19:28]

 someone who himself rose from the dead.

 

“Street Smarts” - September 22, 2019

Luke 16:1-9

            This is one of Jesus’ parables that has bothered me for a long time.  Here’s a swindler who knows that he’s about to get caught and is well aware that there is enough evidence out there to convict him.  So what he does is turn up the heat on his crimes.  He goes to people who owe money to his boss and invites them to falsify the account books in their favor before the dishonest steward is chucked out and their chance passes.  That part is bad enough, but when he was finally audited, Jesus says,

“His master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”  [Luke 16:8]

The end of the parable doesn’t end with his punishment, let alone a wholesale purge of dishonest dealers or reform of corrupt business practices.  It ends with Jesus’ recommendation that people he calls “the children of light” [16:8]  learn a lesson from this guy. 

 “Make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”  [Luke 16:9]

 That doesn’t fit well with my picture of the man who tossed the moneychangers out of the Temple.

             Then, last Thursday morning, I stopped at Giant before a meeting to pick up a box of day-old donuts.  (If you get there early in the morning, they are just as good as the night before.)  I went to the self-serve checkout and scanned the box, and nothing happened.  Over and over, nothing happened.  The cashier who stands there keeping an eye on folks like me came over and she tried, and nothing happened.  So she punched some buttons and then the price came up: $2.49.  The sticker said $3.49 – an instant test of honesty, which I am proud to say I passed.  The check-out lady told me that they’ve asked “them” (whoever that is) to fix their stickers and they don’t bother, so now she’s just letting it go through.  Nobody’s going to correct anything until it hurts them.  Okay, now I’m taking advantage of the broken system.  Or am I helping apply pressure to fix it?  Or both? 

             The dishonest manager in the parable, when he discounted the debts, drew people into his own web.  He knew the system and worked it.  He gained friends and allies who would not be talking against him because they, too, were benefiting from the system.  What would happen, Jesus asks, if the “children of light” did the same thing, and implicated others in good deeds, rather than shady ones?

             It’s a fictional story, but Victor Hugo tells at the start of Les Miserables of how Jean Valjean, a man convicted of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family, is released from punishment as a galley slave and turned loose without any help or resources.  He sets out across country, looking for work as he goes, but nobody will hire him because his papers identify him as a convicted thief.  After a few days he is given supper and a night’s shelter by the bishop of a small town, the first person to show him kindness in years.  In the middle of the night, he gets up and steals the silverware and sneaks out.  The police, who have been watching Valjean, stop him and return him with the stolen goods to the scene of the crime.   The bishop thanks the police for bringing him back, grabs the silver candlesticks from his mantle, and says, “Here.  You forgot these.  I hope it’s enough to get you home.”  When the confused police had left, as the story goes, the bishop tells the man who had robbed him,

 “‘Do not forget, never forget, that you have promised to use this money in becoming an honest man.’

Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of ever having promised anything, remained speechless.  The Bishop had emphasized the words when he uttered them.  He resumed with solemnity: --

‘Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good.  It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.’”[1]

If only it were always that easy!  But God bless (and God does bless) those who give it a try.

             I don’t mean that it’s possible, or even advisable, to throw money at a situation and assume that it will be used honestly or well, or that it will make people’s problems go away.  It’s one tool in the box, sure, but Jesus’ parable teaches his disciples to do more than that. 

             Destructive forces are always ready to drag someone into their circle.  Why shouldn’t those who live by God’s ways be every bit as ready, and every bit as intentional?  The dishonest manager was commended for his shrewdness.  Why should those who work for the Lord be any less creative?

             This parable advises us to learn from the dishonest manager how to implicate people, but to implicate them in doing good, to involve them in active deeds of mercy that draw them away from darkness and into God’s light.  Jesus attitude was that the more people were working for God’s kingdom, the better.

 “John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’  But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.  Whoever is not against us is for us.  For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.’”  [Mark 9:38-41]

             Many years ago, the religious life groups at Duke started up the world’s first campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity, which is an explicitly Christian operation.  They weren’t going to refuse construction help or donations from other student groups, but when it came time to hold organizational meetings or to set out to the job site, they started with prayer.  Those prayers were also led sometimes by one of the Jewish students; everybody was fine with that, and no one asked them to work on Saturdays.  But some of the non-religious volunteers said that they didn’t feel comfortable with prayer being on the agenda, which led to a rich conversation about why people who were part of the project were there at all.  For the organizers, this was a part of their spiritual life from start to finish, not just when their heads were bowed.  They asked those who didn’t want to be part of the prayer circle simply to wait patiently for them.  (There was also an offer to set up a second group if they wanted, but nobody ever really went for that.  It would have been called “Habitat for Humanists”.)  The interesting thing was that by the end of the semester, no one was sitting out the prayer time.

             So, maybe

 “the children of this age are more shrewd in their dealing with their own generation than are the children of light,” [Luke 16:8]

but when the children of light do get it together, good things happen.

 


[1] http://www.online-literature.com/victor_hugo/les_miserables/26/

“Goodness that Gets in the Way” - September 15, 2019

Luke 15:1-10

            In Luke 15 Jesus tells three parables about losing and finding.  One is about a lost sheep, one is about a lost coin, and one is about a lost person.  That third one, usually called the Prodigal Son, is not only about a lost son but also about a lost brother.  All three parables, really, are about lost brothers and lost sisters, how they are found again, and what happens next.  What sets Jesus off, and the reason that he tells these stories, is that people who had fallen off the straight and narrow were trying to get back onto it, and people who had not fallen away were not making it any easier on them.

            Back in Nazareth, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus had announced what he was going to be about.  Right after his baptism, in Luke’s account,

“When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom.  He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.  He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor. 

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.  The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” [Luke 4:16-21]

 At first everybody was happy and proud, but he had not been speaking long when they realized he was saying that God’s concern was not so much with them as with other folk, and that it always had been, and they became so furious they were ready to throw Jesus off a cliff outside town, which he only narrowly escaped.

            As he went around saying these things, he found a much better response among the people Isaiah had named: the welfare mothers, the unemployed, the convicts and ex-convicts, the blind and disabled, the people in hock up to their eyebrows.  That left the people who had always played by the rules and who had always tried to be good in a quandary.  They saw Jesus’ miracles, so they had a sense of confirmation that God was backing him up.  But they also had a sense that, as we would say, “If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.”  (That’s not in the Bible, by the way.  What is there is Paul’s warning “Do not be deceived; bad company ruins good morals.” [I Corinthians 15:33]) 

I suspect that Jesus was fine with everyone being confused.  He was in the business of helping people change.  He wanted to see people move from the lost column to the found column.  There is no way to do that without reaching a hand out across the lines, or going into uncomfortable territory.  He was the sinless Son of God living among sinful human beings, after all, and would have experienced that sense of being out of place more profoundly than anyone ever has or will.  He had been there at the creation of the world, and the world itself would reject him.  Yet here he was – here he still is – among the fallible, broken human beings whom he has always loved.  He could live with the confusion.

What got to him was our inability or unwillingness to see just how fragile and arbitrary are the lines that we draw to count one another in or out, especially when he does so much to draw us into God’s embrace.

“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” [Luke 15:1-2]

That’s when he pointed out that they were treating human beings worse than they treated their sheep.  If 1% of the flock were to be lost, the shepherd goes looking for it.  One sheep out of one hundred.  Don’t you think that just maybe we could look at our brothers and sisters and count them as important as sheep?  Or is it because sheep are property, and people aren’t?  Whatever happened to the words of the psalm [100:3]?

“Know that the Lord is God.

            It is he that has made us, and we are his;

we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.”

If we saw ourselves as one flock instead of one hundred separate sheep, we might see things more like Jesus did.  Instead of making snarky comments, we might show some compassion. 

Of course, compassion is confusing and sometimes it brings its own demands, not only on one person who is gifted with compassion by the Holy Spirit, but also on the people who have to live with them.

Bob was a Methodist preacher who, when I knew him, had retired from a long and honorable career, mostly in the Hudson River Valley and the rural areas of New York.  His wife, Miriam, had a way about her of shaking her head and saying, “Hnh! Bob! Sometimes!”  Miriam was very proper, and Bob seemed that way, too.  He was quiet and mostly kept to himself.  He loved working in his brother’s car repair shop, in part to keep his mind sharp.

In the summer of 1969, Bob had been appointed to serve a small church out in the middle of nowhere, not expecting to get a phone call from the organizers of a music festival a couple of miles down the road in the town of Woodstock.  Problems were cropping up that the planners had not made provisions for.  They were calling local clergy for help.  Bob went off in the middle of the week because, as he said, there were people who were on bad acid trips and needed somebody to talk them down again.  Miriam did not hear from him again for a couple of days, and when she did, it was a phone call that said, “I’m on my way home finally, but I want to warn you that I have a young woman in the car.  She jumped into a pond to keep cool, and someone stole her clothing, so she’s wrapped up in a blanket.  We’ll have to see if you have anything that fits her.”  It’s a great story.  Bob always had trouble getting through it without breaking up in laughter.  Miriam never cracked a smile.

In Jesus’ parable about the shepherd and the lost-and-found sheep,

“When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.  And when he comes home, he calls together his neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’” [Luke 15:5-6]

If you miss the joy in that, you miss the joy that God himself shares in, and the kind of joy for which Jesus endured even the cross.  After all, it was Jesus who said,

“Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” [Luke 15:7]

“Gridiron Grace” - September 8, 2019

Luke 14:25-33

 

            Toward the end of August, Andrew Luck, the 29-year-old quarterback for the Colts, announced his retirement.  He’s not retiring from everything – just the NFL.  He told a reporter last March, “Honestly, I think I could be very happy teaching high school history.”[1]  In his announcement, Luck said,

"This is not an easy decision. Honestly, it's the hardest decision of my life. But it is the right decision for me. For the last four years or so, I've been in this cycle of injury, pain, rehab, injury, pain, rehab, and it's been unceasing, unrelenting, both in-season and offseason, and I felt stuck in it. The only way I see out is to no longer play football.

"I've been stuck in this process. I haven't been able to live the life I want to live. Taken the joy out of the game, and after 2016, when I played in pain and was unable to regularly practice, I made a vow to myself that I would not go down that path again. I find myself in a similar situation and the only way forward for me is to remove myself from football and this cycle that I’ve been in.”[2]

He was booed for it by fans.  He was insulted on social media.  He was called weak.  Some of his detractors insisted he just plain lacked the commitment to stick it out through the pain that comes with a football career. 

  His resignation speech actually confirmed that he was choosing between mutually exclusive paths.  You cannot be a truly great quarterback if you don’t give it your all.  He said,

“I know that I am unable to pour my heart and soul into this position, which would not only sell myself short but the team in the end as well.”        

When he realized he was not ready to do that, he stepped back.  He chose his prior commitments as a human being that would be impossible to fulfill if his health is totally wrecked.  No amount of cheering from the stands and no amount of money could compensate for that.

            That is the kind of commitment that Jesus looks for.  It isn’t that he wants people to despise or reject their families when he says,

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” [Luke 14:26]

 He means that for his disciples, he has to come first.  It is just that kind of relationship.  And since his major command to his followers is to love God with your whole being and to love your neighbor as yourself, their love for him is going to show in how they relate to God and to people.  It is going to become complex.  I guarantee that.

            Jesus told his disciples that they should consider what it means to follow him, because discipleship, living as his follower, is one of those all-or-nothing decisions.  It means that you may have to turn aside from other commitments in order to do what he asks.  Discipleship means that following Jesus is your priority.  You look at your commitments, and honor what is honorable, but when there is a conflict, you go with him.  You may even need to say, “No,” to things that have a lot of good attached to them.  You may even need to say, “No,” to sports when they decide to push Jesus aside.

            Some relationships, by their nature, are all-or-nothing.  The most obvious, for us, is marriage, but it wasn’t always that way.  In Ephesians 5, Paul goes directly against the norms of Roman and Greek society when he insists that not only should a wife be faithful to her husband, a husband must also be faithful to his wife.  The prevailing social attitude was that “boys will be boys” but that was not going to be the way within Christianity.  Because he saw human relationships as (at least ideally) reflecting the relationship between God and humanity, and in its fullest between Christ and the Church, it has to be whole-hearted and, again, all-or-nothing. 

            Discipleship is not a “what-if” matter.  It is an entire way of life and plays out in a lifetime of concrete choices.  Jesus’ call does not leave us on the sidelines.  It sends us into the scrimmage where choices get made.  A lot of those depend on being able and willing to look seriously at the world and ask what is authentic and what is not.  Jesus often speaks a truth that is uncomfortable but, if heard, makes us better. 

Let’s go back to Andrew Luck’s resignation statement again.  He may actually improve other players’ lives by pointing out the destructive side of the sport, “this cycle of injury, pain, rehab, injury, pain, rehab, and it's been unceasing, unrelenting, both in-season and offseason”.  It’s a reality that, for whatever reason, we have until recently ignored.  One of the few female sportswriters that I know of, Natalie Egenolf, wrote about this:

“Since when does anyone in any profession (outside of joining the military) knowingly agree to potentially severely damage not only their physical body but their mind? 

Athletes are conditioned to believe they must not show weakness, that in order to be a ‘true man’ they must sacrifice everything for the ultimate glory of being champion.”[3]

 Jesus’ whole life calls human assumptions into question.  Love our enemies?  Really?  Turn the other cheek?  Are you serious?

To follow Jesus means taking on his assessment of life, and to live it his way.  He’s plain about that.

“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” [Luke 14:27]

 When we become devoted to money, to popularity, to fame, to the rush that comes from opioids or any other chemical substance; when we get caught up in the demands of prestige and the need to keep up appearances, or whatever your particular temptation may be (because everyone has their own), sooner or later Jesus is going to say, Hey!

 “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” [Luke 14:33]

But I am convinced that he does that so that our possessions don’t come to possess us. 

Matthew gives a version of this same passage from Luke that puts matters this way:

“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  [Matthew 10:37-39]

 There are plenty of football players and even coaches who have a strong and healthy faith, and I know nothing about Andrew Luck’s spiritual life.  But I do feel confident making at least one prediction about his future, which is that if he does teach high school history he will do well.  For my part, I feel like he has taught me a good lesson, and I have been out of school for awhile, now.

             And I also predict that anyone whom Jesus tells to take up the ball and run with it will cross the goal line and maybe even get a chance to do a little victory dance in the end zone.


[1] John Feinstein, at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/those-who-booed-andrew-luck-dont-understand-the-pain-of-football/2019/08/27/806b274c-c900-11e9-a1fe-ca46e8d573c0_story.html

[2] See https://www.espn.com/blog/indianapolis-colts/post/_/id/24738/transcript-of-andrew-lucks-retirement-news-conference

[3] https://www.phillyvoice.com/natalie-egenolf-andrew-luck-retirement-future-nfl-sean-rodriguez-phillies-fans-entitled/

“You’re on the Air“ - September 1, 2019

Luke 14:12-14

            Of all the television shows and radio programs that have gone off the air, one of those that I miss the most is “Car Talk”, from NPR.  Two brothers who ran a repair shop, Bob and Ray Magliazzi, would take calls about spark plugs and gas additives and body work that would eventually turn into discussions about the caller’s relationship to her mother-in-law or the origins of baking soda or how to talk to the IRS about some overdue payments.  They took calls from anybody.  One time someone called them from the space shuttle.

            So, what would it be like, I wonder, if Jesus had a show like that? 

 

Jesus:   Hello, you’re in the – I’m mean, you’re on the air. 

Mark:  Hi, this is Mark.  I’m calling from Phoenixville.

Jesus:   Yes, I know.

Mark:  Yeah, sorry about that.

Jesus:   Hey, it’s okay.  The listeners don’t know.  By the way, did you know your number comes up on caller ID as “SPAM”?

Mark:  What?!

Jesus:   Just kidding.  Relax.  What can I do for you?

Mark:  Well, I had this really weird experience a few weeks ago that I thought you could help me sort out.

Jesus:   Which one?

Mark:  The soup kitchen thing.

Jesus:   Oh, that!  That was a good one!

Mark:  Yeah, well…

Jesus:   Go ahead and tell everybody what happened.  I know some of these folks were there, but most weren’t.

Mark:  Okay, so back in July, it was a hot Monday night and we were serving dinner in the basement of St. Peter’s.

Jesus:   Chili, wasn’t it?

Mark:  No, it was hot.

Jesus:   The chili?

Mark:  No, the weather.

Jesus:   Yes.

Mark:  Which?

Jesus:   The chili.

Mark:  What?  The weather was hot.  We were serving chili.  The chili was mild. 

Jesus:   You weren’t serving chili.  You were serving people.

Mark:  Yes, but chili was on the menu.

Jesus:   Does that have anything to do with the story?

Mark:  No, not really.

Jesus:   Then forget about it.  Just go on.

Mark:  Anyway.  When the meal was over, one of the guests just walked into the kitchen while we were cleaning up.

Jesus:   I know him.  He can be a bother, can’t he?  I think he asked you when you would start serving seconds about every ten minutes the whole evening.

Mark:  You do know him.

Jesus:   Hey!  You’re surprised?

Mark:  True.

Jesus:   So go on.  He walks into the kitchen, which is your space, behind the counter that you keep between you and the clientele, so that there’s a sharp division and you can keep some kind of sense of being in charge and convey that to others.

Mark:  Now, that’s not fair.  There would be chaos if everyone could wander around the cooking and serving area.

Jesus:   Am I totally off base?  I mean, totally?

Mark:  Never mind. 

Jesus:   I thought so.  Go on.  He walks into the kitchen.

Mark:  He walks into the kitchen and asks for a pair of pliers.

Jesus:   What for?

Mark:  He didn’t say.  I was just kind of taken off-balance.  I mean, why would I carry pliers with me to the soup kitchen?

Jesus:   Maybe you should.

Mark:  What for?

Jesus:   Just finish the story.  You and I know, but the listening public is waiting with bated breath.

Mark:  Anyway, I told him there were no pliers but asked why he needed them.

Jesus:   There was your mistake.  You went beyond his question.  You connected – always a dangerous moment.  One time there was this guy named Zacchaeus, who had climbed a tree … no, let’s hear your story.

Mark:  This man pulls out a stool from the counter, swings his right foot up over his left knee, and starts waving the bottom of his sneaker around to show me something.

Jesus:   Which was?

Mark:  There was a piece of wire sticking out.  So I took my keys out of my pocket and used one of them as sort of a lever to pull on it.  It came out easily, which made me wonder why he didn’t just pull it out himself instead of waving his stinky shoe all over in front of my face.  The part I had pulled had a rounded end but the part that came out looked like a paper clip that had snapped off when you bend it.  I told him I thought there might still be a piece of wire stuck in the sole of his sneaker and showed it to him.  That’s when he said, no, it was the whole thing, and I looked closer and saw that it was a fishhook.

Jesus:   Those things can be dangerous.  I used to spend a lot of time around fishermen.  I was always relieved that those guys generally used nets.  Peter was incredibly clumsy.  Nobody ever tells you that.  That’s one reason I got nervous about him carrying a knife.  I always told him to be careful he didn’t cut off his finger.  Instead, he ended up cutting off somebody’s ear and I had to reattached it under some very difficult circumstances.  But this fishhook?

Mark:  I didn’t exactly expect a fishhook in Phoenixville.

Jesus:   Why not?

Mark:  I just didn’t.

Jesus:   How did it get there?

Mark:  He stepped on it, obviously.

Jesus:   In Phoenixville?

Mark:  Yes.

Jesus:   So it must not be so unusual.

Mark:  Yes, well, the guy said that he wasn’t surprised because there were fishhooks all over down there.

Jesus:   Down where?

Mark:  I would guess by the canal or the creek.

Jesus:   You didn’t ask?

Mark:  No, I didn’t ask.

Jesus:   Why not?

Mark:  I guess I had heard enough.

Jesus:   You mean that you didn’t want to hear more.

Mark:  Now, come on.

Jesus:   No, you brought this whole thing up.  Let’s finish it.  You had your suspicions and didn’t want to hear more.  You didn’t really want to know more about what this guy’s life is really like, that maybe there are people hanging out under the bridge or someplace in unpleasant conditions, for whatever reason sent them there (and we won’t even go into that right now).  You just wanted to do your good deed for the day because you were tired or whatever, to hand someone some chili and a salad – which is a good thing, don’t get me wrong – but then not to have to deal with the bigger problems that cannot be solved in fifteen minutes and require you to see a person, not just a shoe that makes a weird tapping sound.

Mark:  Why do you always do this?

Jesus:   It’s my job.  Listen, if you really want to get this whole discipleship thing right, here’s how it goes: 

“When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.  But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.  And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”  [Luke 14:12-14]

If you’re doing something to make someone happy and to help people out, that’s great.  Only, you’ve got to do it for them, not yourself, not for the warm fuzzies or anything like that.  And sometimes you may not like what you see, about them or about yourself.  And that’s okay.

Mark:  Okay?

Jesus:   Yes, because it’s not your job to make those calls, and I tend to be more understanding than you are.  And speaking of calls, I think we have a few other folks on the line, so I’m going to let you go.

Mark:  Thanks for your time.

Jesus:   You’re welcome.  Just don’t think I’m letting you off the hook.  Ha, ha, ha!   Take it easy now!  And let’s go to Sunil in Sri Lanka.  You’re in the – on the air. …

“Only” - August 25, 2019

Jeremiah 1:4-8

            A very sad poem came up on my facebook feed this week.  It said,

“I’m very ugly

So don’t try to convince me that

I am a very beautiful person

Because at the end of the day

I hate myself in every single way

And I’m not going to lie to myself by saying

There is beauty inside of me that matters

So rest assured that I will remind myself

That I am a worthless, terrible person

And nothing you say will make me believe

I still deserve love

Because no matter what

I am not good enough to be loved

And I am in no position to believe that

Beauty does exist within me

Because whenever I look in the mirror I always think

Am I as ugly as people say?”[1]

Some people have to fight very hard not to fall into that mindset.  A lot of people slip into it, and then spend a lot of time denying it.  I cannot help but think of Michael Jackson, and the ridiculous and pitiable lengths he went to change his appearance across his lifetime.  Why?  He must have internalized ideas about what someone in his position “should” look like – their hairstyle, skin color, the shape of their nose, the contours of their cheeks.  It’s hard not to say that he was trying to look more European.  If he was, it didn’t work.  In the end, you are who you are, and everyone is made in the image of God, which has nothing to do with physical appearance at all.  When you try to be someone you are not, you make things harder on yourself and, in fact, you may start getting in the way of God’s idea of how things should be.

 

            The prophet Jeremiah wrote about his sense of God’s calling, which came to him early in life.  Some people have to wait years and decades.  Not him.  As he tells it,

“Now the word of the Lord came to me, saying,

‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,

and before you were born I consecrated you;

I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’

Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God!  Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’” [Jeremiah 1:4-6]

 It’s that word “only” that gets in the way. 

            How could the child Samuel have heard God call out to him in the middle of the night while the experienced and capable priest Eli was asleep just in the next room?  Two times, when God called out, “Samuel!  Samuel!”  Samuel responded by waking Eli up and saying, “What do you want?”  Eli, however, was experienced and he was capable, so he knew to tell the boy that it might just be the Lord speaking to him and he should listen.

            Samuel, when he was older, and had followed the path of a prophet of God for many years, was sent to find someone who would become king after Saul had turned out to be a poor choice.  He was sent to the sons of Jesse, and they were introduced to him one by one, from the oldest to the youngest.  The Lord kept saying to him, “Not this one, not that one.”  Finally, he said to Jesse, “Is this everybody?” and Jesse said, “There is one more, but he’s just a kid.  He’s out somewhere watching our sheep.”  Samuel wouldn’t eat or rest till he had met him, too.  The young shepherd’s name was David, and God said, “This is the one.”

            “Only.”  A lot would never have happened if God took that word as seriously as we do.

            When Jeremiah used it, this is what God said to him:

“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;

for you shall go to all to whom I send you,

and you shall speak whatever I command you.

Do not be afraid of them,

for I am with you to deliver you,’

says the Lord.”  [Jeremiah 1:7-8]

 

Because he took the Lord at his word, Jeremiah was off and running.  He would become the major prophet of God for his time and place, not only when he was a child but well into his late years.

             Today we pay special attention to our students, and to their teachers.  They both find themselves in the odd mix of people that we call the educational system.  It includes folks from all kinds of religious background, and many with no experience of God (at least, as they see it).  They may be asked to explain themselves and their beliefs, and think,

 “‘Ah, Lord God!  Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only…’”

 They will be with people who are gifted at sports, art, music, math, and languages; but no one who excels at all of those, and most of whom drop back in at least a couple of those.  In the midst of that, too, they have to know that they are never only.  It isn’t those things that determine who they are.  What matters is what God says about them.

“‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,

and before you were born I consecrated you.’”

 Both teachers and students will have to deal with competing demands on their time and energy.  Some of them will face bureaucrats and some of them will be troubled by bullies.  In short, they will be faced with all the complexities of our society.  They have to figure out how to make their way through all of that with integrity.  There will be days that they jump out of bed, eager to get to school, and days that they want to hide their heads under a pillow and pretend it isn’t happening. 

They are also going to be reminded of possible dangers and asked to develop responses to dangerous situations that will probably never arise for them.  They will be taught to fear.  Last week there was an unfortunate incident, that thankfully ended well, when a SWAT team closed off the area around Lincoln Ave. and Hall St., not far from Barkley.  Our building, along with St. John’s and the YMCA, is a designated place of refuge in case of emergency on the school campus down the street from us.  They hold active shooter drills the way that, when I was a kid, we held nuclear fallout drills.  They are the ones who will have to say to the people around them that, no matter what, God offers a safety that no one else ever could.

“‘Do not be afraid of them,

for I am with you to deliver you,’

says the Lord.”

And it is so easy to think, in the midst of all that they face, that there is nothing they can do to make it better, because at the same time we and they constantly hear from advertisers and social media that we have to fit every ideal and have every new gadget and meet every random and constantly-changing criterion of perfection to be worthwhile.  No, you don’t.  God loves you.  That tells you enough right there.  Whose standards could be higher that God’s?  But, once again, let me say this: “God loves you.”  That is a beauty that nothing can touch.

God doesn’t see things the way that the world does.  God doesn’t do things the way that the world tells us to do them.  The world says to look at the appearance.  God looks at the heart.  The world says to get and hold onto all that you can.  God says to share all that you are able.  The world says to get even.  God says to forgive.  The world says to look down on people.  God says to leave the judgment to him. 

That poem that I started this sermon with, let me read it to you again, not from top to bottom, but from bottom to top, in that backward sort of way that God tells us to see things, and to live.

“Am I as ugly as people say?

Because whenever I look in the mirror I always think

Beauty does exist within me

And I am in no position to believe that

I am not good enough to be loved

Because no matter what

I still deserve love

And nothing you say will make me believe

That I am a worthless, terrible person

So rest assured that I will remind myself

There is beauty inside of me that matters

And I’m not going to lie to myself by saying

I hate myself in every single way

Because at the end of the day

I am a very beautiful person

So don’t try to convince me that

I’m very ugly.”

 There is nothing only about anyone made in God’s image, sought out by Jesus, and offered all the blessings of the Holy Spirit.


[1] Attributed to Abdullah Shoaib at https://www.facebook.com/Thepopularist/posts/2281597288752901

“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.