Theology 101: Idolatry

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”

Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

Luke 14:1-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place’, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

He said also to the one who had invited him, “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.”

 

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Politics and Religion.

Those are the two things that are off limits at my mother’s dinner table. You can burp the alphabet, tell an off color joke, you can come to dinner dressed in the clothes you woke up in. But you start talking about religion or politics, and You. Are. Done.

Perhaps this is because my mother is a good southern woman who was raised to keep conversation polite.  Here’s what I think: it is because these are the two topics that are most likely to start an argument. Because we don’t all think the same things, do we? In my family, we are all across the map—Baptists sitting next to atheists, sitting next to Republicans, sitting next to whatever Bernie Sanders people are calling themselves these days. So the potential for conflict, when it comes to religion and politics, is high. And once the door is open, everyone has an opinion. Better to keep the door closed. Better to keep things safe.

Which makes for some really polite, but incredibly boring dinner parties. Because let me tell you, the dinners I remember best aren’t the ones where everyone behaved themselves. I bet you know what I am talking about. In my family, there are some pretty epic stories about individuals who broke the rules, resulting in some pretty heated conversations.

Luke’s Gospel this morning describes one of those “memorable” dinner parties. One of those parties that didn’t exactly go as planned. Because Jesus showed up.

Who knows why the Pharisee invited Jesus to his dinner party—maybe he was just trying to be friendly, maybe he was curious about the new rabbi in town. Maybe he figured this new guy would play it safe, stick to the rule-book, not ruffle the feathers.

Maybe he figured that, just like we do, Jesus knew what the rules were and cared about them. Because that is what we all really want right?  When I have a dinner party, I expect people to behave. And when I go to a party and don’t know everyone there, then I try my best to behave too. I stand quietly in the social area. Maybe I say hi to a few folks. And if we get to talking, we stick to “safe” conversation: “What do you do?”” Where do you live?” “Tell me about your kids.” You get the picture.

Not Jesus. It quickly becomes clear that Jesus is “that guy”—you know, the guy at the dinner party that everyone can’t stop staring at, or listening to, because he is making a scene.

A-Woman-With-DropsyIt all starts with a sick man. There is a man at the party with Dropsy. Anyone know what dropsy is? It is severe edema. Probably caused by severe heart failure. The man is swollen up like a balloon. Makes you wonder what he is doing at a dinner party—edema can be incredibly painful, and was essential as slow, painful death sentence in Jesus’ Day—people who suffered from it slowly drowned in their own bodies.

So of course, Jesus draws their attention to this man, whose suffering is on full display while they eat and make merry on the Sabbath. He asks them—if your child or your ox was drowning in a well, would you save them on the Sabbath? What about this man, who is drowning in his body? Is there a difference?

But Jesus isn’t done. He just can’t help himself. He moves on to the guests themselves. All of a sudden we are getting advice from the Rabbi about seating assignments and guest lists. He is like the ancient Jewish version of Ms Manners, only none of these people asked him for advice.

Whenever they ask prospective presidents who they would like to meet someday or have a meal with, and they say Jesus—I think of this dinner party. Because clearly, Jesus isn’t interested in playing by anybody’s rules. Jesus isn’t going to behave and be polite. He is going to speak truth. To the poor and the sick, and to the wealthy and powerful. Doesn’t matter who you are, Jesus is going to say what needs to be said.

And what is the truth that needs to be said?

Perhaps we need to hear that we have spent a lot of time worrying about things that don’t really matter.

Let me explain. A friend of mine was sharing this week that she HATES this text, because Jesus seems to single out all of these people based on their social statues or health status. For her, this just seems wrong. Aren’t we all just people, she asks? But of course we do this all the time. If we are really honest with ourselves, we are constantly sorting ourselves against the people around us, ranking ourselves based on who seems to have the most, or the least; whose life seems better or worse than our own. And if we are honest, most of us would prefer to find ourselves, if not at the top of our pecking order, at least above the median.

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Why? Because many of us have been raised to believe that these are the things that define us. That our job, our house, our stuff, even our health are the things that matter. That our worth is roughly equivalent to our investment account or the appearance of our home. A fellow clergy person shared with me recently that when he was young his dad raised him to grow up and take care of his family. So he did. He got a job, and he lived at his job. Barely saw the family that he was trying to provide for. He was just doing what he had been taught.

And perhaps you may notice as well that these are things that we think we can control. We decide what we do, where we live, what car we drive, whether we work on at the gym every morning. And if we can control them, it can be tempting to believe that others can too. So we judge the poor, the unemployed, the sick. Can’t you just get a job? Can’t you stay out of trouble? Can’t you just take care of yourself? How quickly grace evaporates when we think we have control. We do this. We do this.

But not Jesus. Jesus will have none of that. For Jesus, dinner tables aren’t just dinner tables. They are practice grounds for the great banquet of the Kingdom of God, and in the Kingdom of God, everyone is invited to the dinner party. All of our jockeying, all that sorting that we waste our time worrying over, none of that matters in God’s house. If we are honest, those things can be a weight around our necks, pulling us down and away from what really matters. And what really matters? Paul perhaps said it best when he said: let mutual love continue. What matters is the community that gathers at Christ’s table—not where we sit, but that we are there. Together. What matters is that the Jesus who sat at that table and pissed off the Pharisees didn’t preach anything he didn’t also do himself—for Jesus built a ministry out of welcoming the lonely, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, whether those people had everything or barely enough to get by.

And guess who we worship?

Not success.Martin-Luther-idolatry.jpg

Not money.

Not comfort.

Not power.

All of those are false idols. False promises of a secure life.

We worship Jesus, who entered this world poor and weak and small so that he could teach us about a love that doesn’t rank or divide, or exclude.

We worship Jesus, who doesn’t care who you are or what you have—he just bids you come.

We worship Jesus, whose table is open to all of us, because whatever we have, we all get hungry and thirsty, and God would feed us.

We worship Jesus, who is the same today, yesterday and forever.

We worship Jesus.

And that is enough.

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Theology 101: Sanctification

Jeremiah 1:4-10

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.” But the LORD said to me, “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.” Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

Luke 13:10-17

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

12549095_1192425460786857_4723051213432493191_n.jpgWe had a great conversation in Pub Theology recently–we were talking about God, and who God is, and what it means to us when we talk about God.

Now, one person mentioned during our conversation that they thought of God as perfect. They didn’t know what perfect looks like, but that was something that they understood as fundamental to who God is.

Another person struggled with perfection as a definition for God—“look at the world around us,” they said. “Can you really say that God is perfect?” They were looking at the way God’s creation has consistently screwed up, and they struggled to see how creating fallible, sinful, broken people could have possibly been the intention of a perfect God.

Does God make mistakes? Are we a mistake?

Really this is a question about Free Will—what does it mean that we have free will?

Jeremiah gives us one answer: in our text this morning, we learn from the prophet that God is perfect, that God believes that we are perfectly made, that we are just the way we were meant to be. That God formed us in the womb. God gave us everything we need to flourish.

But there is one thing that God didn’t give us: he didn’t create us to be machines, robotically doing God’s bidding. Instead, God gave us freedom to move around in the world.

Which creates problems, of course. Wouldn’t we all prefer that the people and animals under our control were perfectly obedient all the time? Wouldn’t it be great if our kids never fought with us, our friends always laughed at our jokes, and we never stuck our foot in it? Wouldn’t it be awesome if your dog never chewed up your favorite shoes and your cat never peed in your suitcase?

Wouldn’t it be great if we were always completely confident that we could achieve whatever goal was set before us?

Of course, we aren’t. And the reality is that, while we might prefer that the world bend to our will, when it comes to us individually, we treasure our freedom. There are very few people in this world who enjoy having every decision made for them. And God made us like that on purpose. For all of its confusion, that, too is a gift from God for the people of God.

Because it means that we have the freedom to choose God back. We have the freedom, like the prophet Jeremiah, to find the words to speak. The freedom to discover that, for all of our weakness and vulnerability, God has the capacity to fill us with a life of purpose and meaning that we can choose. The freedom to walk the path of justice and mercy because we wish to, not because we have to.

That freedom—the freedom to choose—is expressed in our tradition as sanctification. Sanctification is the practice of choosing holiness, and as followers of Jesus, that means using our freedom in ways that bless not just ourselves but the world that God has made. Choosing kindness, and mercy, and justice, the things of God for the people of God, over everything else that calls to us.

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There is a great example of what this might look like in an ancient story called the Odyssey. The Odyssey follows the journey of its hero, Odysseus, as he fights his way home to his family. This is his only goal. And there is this one point in his story where he must pass by a stretch of the ocean that is known for shipwrecking captains. Here, the irresistible song of the sirens lures men into the waters and the rocky shores, where they inevitably perish. And so Odysseus, who wants to go home, directs his men to plug their ears with beeswax, and to tie him to the mast. No matter what he says or how loud he begs, he remains on that mast. Until they are safe. Until he can remember what is truly important.

Of course, Odysseus isn’t the only ancient person who sought to protect his freedom by binding his options. This is what the law of Moses was and is intended to do—it creates limits around the people of God so that they can honor their choice to follow God. Like Odysseus, the Jewish people bind themselves, in this case, to a covenant that governs their behavior and ensures that everyone is taken care of.

Except for when they aren’t. It turned out that sometimes, the rules and the values come into conflict. In Jewish tradition, these conflicts are explored in something called the Midrash—in midrash, great rabbis like Rashi and Akiva try to resolve the problems. And in our Gospel today, Jesus steps right into the middle of that conversation: if the rules are meant to help us follow God, what do we do when it seems like God is asking us to break the rules to help another person? Jesus answer is that there is no conflict—freeing a crippled woman from her bondage on the Sabbath, a day of freedom for God’s people, is precisely the intention of Sabbath to begin with. But not everyone agrees.

Because they have a different vision of holiness.

I can relate to that. Don’t we all, if we are honest, have an idea in our minds of what perfection looks like? If we could have the perfect life, your idea of what that looks like would probably not look the same as mine.  Some of us might bring to mind a place that seems perfect, or people that we would surround ourselves with. Because we all have different ideas of perfection.  Just like the people in the bible.

But here’s the thing. Jesus is asking us to consider the possibility that holiness, that perfection, isn’t about you or me or what any one person thinks. It is about us. It is about the community, and we aren’t perfect until all of us are free. We aren’t perfect until the lame can walk, the blind can see, the sick are healed, the widow and the orphan are provided for, the prisoner is visited, and the lonely are embraced. Only then are we perfect. And so he heals on the Sabbath. He breaks a rule. Because he has looked at the bigger picture—God’s Dream of the Kingdom of God—and he saw this woman left behind. Not all rules are the same. (it may surprise you to learn, by the way, that most rabbis agree with him).

So if you are asking yourself—what does this mean for me? Perhaps you would do well to hear what Jesus often says to those who pose that question: “Go and do likewise.” We who would call ourselves Christians are called to respond to Christ by seeking to be like him.

To refuse to settle for a shallow faith. To look for the big picture : ask yourself, “Does my life make room for others? Have I remembered the poor, the sick, the lame, the lonely as much as I have remembered myself? Have I used my freedom for the glory of God? Or only for myself?

Unknown.jpegOur tradition has another name for this. John Calvin called it “putting on God spectacles” so that you can see the world the way that God sees it.   Because when we really listen to what God is saying in the Scriptures, it changes our vision. We see the world differently. And that can make all the difference.

 

 

Theology 101: Faith

Isaiah 5:1-7

Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.

And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?

And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.

For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!


Hebrews 11:29-12:2

By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets-who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented-of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

 

IMG_6087.JPGA gardener decided to plant a garden.

She started the fall before, picking the perfect spot—for days, she watched the suns daily movement across her land, until she knew the pattern of light well enough to know that that patch, over there, past the oak tree, near the dam, would get the best morning and afternoon light. She tested the soil and squealed with delight to find it rich and nourishing, perfect for what she had planned.

Only then did she set to work—tilling the soil within her plot, pulling out stones, removing the roots of distant trees snaking beneath the soil, digging up those intrepid volunteer weeds that would not be able to share this space with what she had planned.

And then, because she knew there were plenty of foragers who might be tempted by her garden, she laid a fence. No scavengers or menaces would be welcomed here. She buried it a foot into the ground to keep out the groundhogs and rabbits, and hoped that the four feet would be enough to deter the deer that year.

As the winter frosts set in and the sun retreated earlier and earlier into the night sky, she began to plan—poring over seed catalogues, planning out the garden of her dreams on paper, plotting each plant to ensure the best possible yield. She ordered seeds—tomatoes and corn, beans and lettuce, beets, potatoes, cabbage and celery, herbs upon herbs and FLOWERS—And then she waited for the mailman to bring her treasures to her front door.

In February, her garden lay frozen beyond the oak tree, but she continued to work for her garden, starting the tiny little seeds in unassuming flats of soil on shelves in her basement. Every morning, she checked the grow lamp, water levels, tended to her babies as though they were her most precious possession. She counted the days until the final frost had passed, sowing carrots, peas, beets and lettuce in neat rows of dark, damp loam.

In the mornings, she began to sip her coffee on the porch and laughed at the rabbits as they hopped around the fence, unable to find their way in.

In late spring, she brought her little babies out of the basement and set them on the porch—seeds that had become tomatoes and eggplants, peppers and cabbage, herbes upon herbs and FLOWERS—and she laid them in their plots. She put cages around the tomatoes and built trellises for the beans and the cucumbers, piled the dirt upon the beginnings of potatoes and corn, and when all was finished, she sat back on her porch, tired and satisfied, and waited for it to grow.

She waited.

And waited.

And waited.

In June, she started to get worried. The plants were growing, alright, but they weren’t setting any fruit. Her carrots were spindly, and her lettuce was as pokey as could be. What was wrong with the garden that she had planted? There were no pests to be found—the rabbits, the groundhogs, even the bugs had left her patch to itself. Only the bees zipped around, seeking in vain for the flowers that refused to emerge.

In July, she got angry—not even the hint of an eggplant or a tomato to be seen. All of that labor was threatening to yield nothing more than a few sparse salad greens and whole lot of frustration. She had a stern talking to her plants, and then retreated to her porch, stewing as the sun set in the sky.

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What then, do you suppose she should do in August, when nothing has changed? She has done everything right, and these plants she had tended lovingly, they have refused to do the one thing that ought to come naturally to them—they have refused to bear fruit. Would we blame her if, in her frustration, she gave up entirely? Ripped out the plants, the fence, the trellis and the tomato cages, plowed under the garden and let the grass overtake it once more?

I can relate to her—for years now, I have been tending the roses in the back yard of the manse, willing them to flower. And I have done everything I could for these plants that I did not even choose—when we moved here, Sean Pope helped us cut down the weed trees that choked out the light. We weeded, we mulched, we fertilized. When Japanese beetles and rose slugs and aphids emerged, I picked them off, sprayed them with garden soap, smothered them in a bucket of soapy water. Most of the roses have responded gratefully, and this spring their blooms were overwhelming and received with joy.

Except for one. One sickly, spindly, leggy rose in the corner by the nursery has flat out refused to flourish. Despite my best efforts, it has produced little more than a handful of pale pink blossoms on the end of sickly, leggy, stalks. Nothing I have done for it has worked.

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And so, it will go. This fall, three summers into this rescue mission, it will go the way of all ungrateful plants, and make room for something that will do something with the plot of land that it has been given. There just isn’t room in our yard to be wasted on roses that refuse to bloom.

Am I sad? Of course. I didn’t plant that rose, but I tended to it like it was my own. It received the same attention and care that I gave to everything else—the dahlias and Echinacea, tomatoes and tulips that grace the earth. But unlike them, it didn’t seem to care how much time or attention I gave it. And so, I will save my efforts for those corners of my garden that show promise. They haven’t given up on me, and I won’t give up on them.

Of course, this was never really about a garden, was it? In our first lesson this morning, Isaiah speaks in metaphors—and when he speaks of the garden, we know that what he means is the people of God. That God is like a gardener who planted his people, who gave them everything they needed to flourish. And in our text today, perhaps we find ourselves threatened as God tears down the walls and leaves his garden to perish. Or perhaps we are intimated by Paul’s list of all of the faithful gardens of the past, whose examples seem impossible to follow.

But there is another way to read these lessons. Perhaps we can take heart in the knowledge that God has given us absolutely everything that we need to flourish. That if we are God’s garden, we have amazing potential. We have been given the same care and attention that God gave to the Israelites in the desert, to the judges and the kings, the prophets and the martyrs, who at the end of the day were ordinary people who trusted that the Gardener would stand with them in extraordinary times.

The truth is that the garden that is Ivyland Presbyterian Church could produce the most amazing fruit—enough to feed everyone. And like any good garden of the people, we have so many different gifts to share. Spiritual tomatoes and corn, potatoes and eggplant, peppers and celery, herbs upon herbs upon herbs and FLOWERS! And none of us isn’t important. We all have a purpose. Remember, the tomato and the corn may seem like the king of the garden, but they are stronger for the carrots and marigolds and beans that provide additional nourishment, deter pests, and encourage the bees to take a visit. And the herbs—they provide so much flavor to our communal life with so little.

I could beat this metaphor into the ground, of course, but the point is this: when we see ourselves as the garden that God made us to be, then we see that what comes naturally, what we would call faith, is the work of learning to live together. That what comes naturally is supporting one another, encouraging one another, loving one another, because together we are far better than we are alone. Together, we have everything we need. Together, we make the most beautiful garden you have ever seen. A garden of justice, of mercy, of kindness, and righteousness.

And that, my friends, is what faith looks like. It looks like a garden of people, planted by God, filled with the goodness and promise of harvest. People doing what they were made to do, because they trust in the Gardener who made them and who tends them still. And that, brothers and sisters, is pleasing to God.

 

This Place Could Be Beautiful

1 Kings 19:1-15a

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the LORD came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the LORD said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.

Luke 8:26-39

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”-for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

Mem Park

“Where is God?”

That is a question I have been hearing a lot this week.  In the newspapers, on Facebook, in private conversations and pastoral visits:  “Where is God?  You must know, pastor.  Isn’t this your specialty?”

It is a very real question.  In a world where 50 lives can be snuffed out in one evening of violence, where toddlers are dragged into lakes and idealistic politicians are gunned down by angry citizens—where is God?

I look to Scripture and am reminded this week that the people of God have been asking this question in the midst of their suffering for as long as there has been breath.  Sitting on the ash pile, scraping his wounds, Job cries out into the abyss and wonders—where is the Lord?  Elijah, running for his life, hiding under a broom tree in the desert and waiting for Jezebel’s army to find him, despairs—where are you God?  Can you not come and end my misery?

And then there are those who have perhaps given up on God entirely.  The possessed man in Luke’s Gospel this morning does not cry out for a Savior, at least as far as we know.  Scripture is silent on the issue. Living in the land of the Gentiles, far from the land of the God of Israel, he is utterly and completely forsaken.  By his city. By his family. He lives in the land of death amongst the tombs.  Beyond hope, beyond redemption. He doesn’t pray for a Savior, either because he doesn’t believe he is worth saving, or doesn’t know the possibility exists.  He doesn’t even know his own name.  He has been completely and utterly possessed by the dark and sinister Legion which has left him unclean in the eyes of his family and his community.  There is no one more forsaken than he.

So what are we to make of Jesus’ journey to meet this man?  Just moments before, Jesus had been preaching and teaching amongst his own people, when he suddenly decided it was time to get on the boat and sail across the lake from Galilee into foreign territory.  And so they go, away from home and through the stormy seas, not to a city filled with people but to a cemetery.  A land of the dead.   Where he is encountered by a man possessed by an unclean spirit.  In his blog on preaching and the lectionary, David Lose points out that this is an interesting designation, reminding us that there are a variety of spirits, some life giving, some not.   And from the story, we are meant to know that this man is a danger, not only to himself but to others, rendered religiously unclean both by his possession and his location amongst the dead.

According to Lose:

It would seem to be the very last place we would expect to find Jesus.

Which, when you think about it, is where God usually shows up.  At our moments of profound doubt, grief, loss and defeat.  And—and this is the one that often surprises us—among those who may to this point have little interest in, let alone relationship with, God.

Remember, this man has no reason to think that Jesus would come for him.  And yet, here he is.  And given Jesus’ abrupt return to Galilee after his healing has been accomplished, it seems quite possible, probable even, that Jesus made that long trek across the stormy waters for the sake of this one man.

All of which suggests that there is absolutely nowhere God is not willing to go to reach and free and sustain and heal those who are broken and despairing.

We find reinforcement for this interpretation when we look to the story of Elijah—this prophet who has stood up to Ahab and Jezebel, who now hides under a broom tree in the desert waiting for God or Jezebel to end his life, finds instead that God will sustain him.  That even the desert is not beyond God’s power to heal and restore. There is literally no place that God cannot find us, and bring us home.

It is as though the Word of God needs to remind us, on this week in which the suffering of the world is so near to us, in which our frailty, our weakness, our brokenness is so on display, that there is no place on earth that is God-forsaken.  Whether we dwell in the desert of despair or amongst the tombs of the dead, God is with us.  And as Lose is quick to point out,

We are reminded that there is no person who is God-forsaken.  Unclean. Outcast, Abandoned, Unpopular, incarcerated, unbeliever.  No one is left out.

Consider that the man in the tombs is no Jew, and there is no indication that he becomes a Christian.  And when he begs Jesus to let him come with him, our Savior sends him back home with one instruction: “Go and tell what God has done for you.”

And that is, I think, the essence of the Gospel.  This is what we are meant to teach to our children.  That there are no conditions to be met to receive God’s love.  That there are no categories more deserving of God’s grace, no groups of people who are more favored.  You don’t have to have believed your whole life, or have come to faith recently, or perhaps have any faith at all.  Jesus will seek us all out just the same.  And the most faithful response we can make to this reality is to Go and Tell what God has done for us.  To share the Good News of the Gospel with the world, whether they are in the tombs, in the desert, or living a life of relative comfort.

Good Bones (Maggie Smith)

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.

Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine

In a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,

A thousand deliciously ill-advised ways

I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least

Fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative

Estimate, though I keep this from my children.

For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.

For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,

Sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world

Is at least half terrible, and for every kind

Stranger, there is one who would break you,

Though I keep this from my children. I am trying

To sell them the world. Any decent realtor,

Walking you through a real shithole, chirps on

About good bones: This place could be beautiful,

Right? You could make this place beautiful.

May we make this place beautiful by our love, by our witness to Christ, by our unfailing hope in the Father, who will go to the furthest reaches to remind us that we are not alone. That we are loved. And that we are  called to do likewise.  Amen.

Remembering Orlando

Vigil Pamphlet

The following remarks were delivered at the Ivyland Borough Vigil held on Tuesday, June 14th for the Victims of the Orlando Massacre:

On Sunday morning, we woke up to yet another reminder that we still live in a culture of violence.

Perhaps, like me, you woke up early expecting another day of worship when you first heard the news of the carnage in Orlando. As a person of faith I asked myself—what does it mean to worship God on a day like this? As mothers and fathers, sisters and friends and loved ones mourn the dead and the wounded? As EMTs and hospital staff and police and fire men and women gather the bodies and tend to the wounded?

Perhaps you woke up expecting to spend the day outside, or at the beach, or at brunch with friends, and your carefree day was interrupted by the news that yet again, another troubled soul had inflicted rage and violence and terror on a vulnerable community in the very place where they felt safe and known and welcomed.

Perhaps you went to sleep feeling safe, feeling welcome, and woke up to the awful reminder that for some, being brown or being queer can put you on the barrel end of an angry man’s trigger. That they can come and find you in the places you feel safest. While you are dancing and singing and rejoicing, hate can burst through the walls. And so we do not feel safe. And all the “thoughts and prayers” of politicians and pastors and well-meaning people cannot still our frantic hearts, cannot put to rest our sense that there is too much that is wrong in a world where an angry person can buy a guy and mow down young men and women in a dance club.

If you are Christian like me, perhaps it is tempting to look to Scripture at times like this for answers. To ask, “What would Jesus Do?” And when I look at the witness of Scripture, when I turn to my God seeking answers, what I see is righteous anger. What I see is a God who will not be silent in the face of violence, in the face of hatred, particularly when it is directed at those whom our society has too often ignored and silenced.

The God I know in Christ wasn’t satisfied with a system that oppresses the poor and the vulnerable. To those who would crush the vulnerable, he had this to say:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be filled

Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.

Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude and revile you, and reject you on account of the Son of Man.

Such is the Kingdom of God. It is not like this world, but rather it is a place where the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated—are embraced. Are welcomed. Are loved. Because they are God’s children. WE are God’s children. But here’s the kicker—the Kingdom of God isn’t up in the clouds. It is within us. It is AT HAND. Which means that we have a responsibility to one another. A responsibility to love and care for and protect and uphold one another. Because we are all God’s creation.

So as we gather tonight, let us not stop with prayers, but let us commit to stand with the poor, with the hungry, with the weeping, with the hated. Let us embrace our gay and Latino neighbors who are reeling from this trauma. Let us embrace our Muslim American neighbors who are afraid that this one act of violence will brand them too. Let us speak the names of the dead because they are our brothers and sisters. They are our mothers and fathers. They are our neighbors and our fellow citizens. There is no us and them. There is only We. And we are bound together, as neighbors, as citizens, as Americans. E Plurbis Unum—out of many, one.

So let us pray. But let us also remember that it’s not enough. It’s not enough. Prayer did not stop Orlando. It did not stop Sandy Hook. It did not stop Aurora. It did not stop San Bernardino. Clearly, more is called for from us.

And so we must weep, but we must also act. We who remain cannot let our outrage end with a vigil flame—we must turn and go back into our community and work for peace. Whether we do it because Christ calls us, or our faith compels us, or because we are simply good, decent, moral American people, we cannot let this tragedy be one more statistic. It is up to US to speak truth to power, and to say—enough. Enough violence. Enough bloodshed. Let us try another way. Let us create a world in which all are safe, in which we find sanctuary in our common brotherhood. Let us aspire to better.

The Lord Indeed is God

1 Kings 18:20-39

So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” The people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty. Let two bulls be given to us; let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.” All the people answered, “Well spoken!” Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; then call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made. At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.

Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come closer to me”; and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down; Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, “Israel shall be your name”; with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed. Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” Then he said, “Do it a second time”; and they did it a second time. Again he said, “Do it a third time”; and they did it a third time, so that the water ran all around the altar, and filled the trench also with water.

At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench.  When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.”

 

The city was in ruins.

Nearly deserted by the people, its houses sat empty and its streets laid bare, littered with the debris of a war that had raged through the country until it had destroyed nearly everything of value.

It seemed, quite literally, a city of the dead.

And as history tells it, it was on a Monday morning that spring, amongst the ruins of war, that nearly 10,000 slaves marched their way onto the old Washington Race Course, a horse racing venue turned prison camp, where hundreds of union soldiers had died.

For two weeks, they worked to bury the soldiers, 257 graves for men who died of exposure and malnourishment. And as they dug, children sang hymns—John Brown’s Body, the Star Spangled Banner, America—while their pastors preached and the people strewed the ground with flowers.

Long before Memorial Day, these men and women laid flowers on graves to honor the dead. To remember their fight. To give thanks for their sacrifice, a civil war fought in part so that they might be free.May28NYTimes_MemorialDay_Fin.jpeg

It is easy to forget the lessons of a holiday whose cost is distant to modern eyes. Easy to forget that a holiday like Memorial Day has to be because so many young lives are not. Happens because so many wars continue to be fought, not just on our soil, but in distant lands we may never see and can too easily forget

And as I reflect on this weekend, when many will lay flowers on graves, join in parades, or disappear to the beaches, I am struck by the recognition that it is only by remembering days such as Memorial Day, that we can begin to imagine a world that is otherwise.

And I am reminded of this fact today by no other than the remarkable prophet Elijah.

In the Scripture for today, you see, the nation of Israel is at a crossroads. As long as there have been kings, these powerful men have been synonymous with the voice of God. David, Solomon—they have, more often than not, led the people closer to God, and the people have followed gratefully.

But the Israel of Elijah’s time is a shadow of its former self. Infighting and politics have fractured the kingdom. They are a people divided–a north and a south, two kings who bicker and fight and then make up again, until the next time.  The people of Jerusalem now follow King Ahab, whose moral relativism has led them farther and farther from God. Scripture tells us that his wife Jezebel, a Sidonian (and therefore an outsider to the people of God) has not only encouraged the worship of foreign gods; she has murdered the priests of the Lord when they have spoken against Ahab.  For this and more Scripture tells us that the people have suffered under a punishing drought, and their desperate cries have reached to the heavens.

And it is into this vulnerable moment that Elijah comes. Out of the desert, seemingly out of nowhere, he arrives on the scene to call the people back to God. Back to faithfulness. Back to their story.

1 Kings is such a rich story, and there is so much that could be said about what happens in these moments, but for now, I think what is important for us to hear is this: that Elijah’s actions on Mount Carmel remember the people to themselves.elijah.gif

To a people who have forgotten who and whose they are, Elijah offers them the opportunity to remember the God of Israel. To remember the promise of the covenant. To remember, in other words, that there is another way than the path that they have tread up to this moment.

To illustrate what is at stake, Elijah arranges a contest between the Gods.  On one side stands Elijah.  Against him are hundreds of priests of Baal, whose job it will be to call the god down from his sleep.  And they take this job quite seriously.  As they cut them selves, as they cry out and limp around their altar, as they beg and plead and cry, I am reminded of how often I fall into the trap of depending on my own actions, my own perceived “faithfulness” to make a way in this world. How often do we tell myself that our success is dependent on how good I am? How often do I blame myself when I cannot force my life or my world to conform to my vision for it? How often do I blame leaders–in the church, in this country, in this world–when they fail to single-handedly implement their high-minded rhetoric?

And then I contrast this tendency towards self-sufficiency with Elijah, who, drawing the people closer to him, takes his time as he carefully repairs the altar of God. Twelve stones, for twelve tribes. Remember the covenant, he whispers. So calm, so assured, I almost hold my breath reading it now.

And when all is ready, the table set, the story–our story–remembered, the people close to God’s altar, Elijah prays. Not for victory. Not for power. But for God to be present, “so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” And the fire consumes. And the people remember. And they cannot forget again.


This memorial day, as politicians and elected officials cry out for peace even as they sanction the machine of war, we would do well to remember who deserves our trust. We would do well to remember that they are not God. That we are not God.

We would do well to remember that the God we worship is the God who called us not to war, but to service. Not to victory, but to faithfulness. Not to power, but to the Kingdom of God, where there is no war, no tears, and where death has no sting.

Let us not forget this, as we mourn those whose lives have been lost in service to the powers of this world, and let us pray to God for the Kingdom, even as we labor for peace in this peaceless world.28a78d3b4a5cd3f2c00b539184793858.jpg

 

The Troubled Peace of the Cemetery

Peace is not the product of terror or fear.

Peace is not the silence of cemeteries.

Peace is not the silent result of violent repression.

Peace is the generous,

tranquil contribution of all

to the good of all.

Peace is dynamism.

Peace is generosity.

It is right and it is duty.

-Oscar Romero

What is it about cemeteries that folks find so peaceful?  As I have approached the annual observance of Memorial Day, my mind has been drawn to the ways in which our culture so often equates silence with peace.  And there is nothing that seems more quiet or peaceful than a big, sprawling cemetery.

Mount_Auburn_Cemetery_2.JPGWhen I was in seminary in Cambridge, my friends would often walk down Mt. Auburn to the cemetery.  Heck, I even went on a first date there (surprisingly, a walk in a cemetery is a great way to get to know someone).  We treated that cemetery like a park, and indeed it was one of the few substantial, wooded, secluded areas where one could go to enjoy the sensation of escaping from the sound and fury of graduate school.

There amongst the flora and fauna, it was easy to believe that this place was more than just a cemetery.  And indeed, those who care for it claim it as far more than a resting place for the dead.  According to their website, “a National Historic Landmark, a botanical garden, an outdoor museum of art and architecture, and an important habitat for urban wildlife.” Gravestones are no longer simply markers for the dead–they are works of art.  The people who are interred there? Stories that connect us to our rich and varied past.

And certainly, this cemetery (and many others as well) is incredibly beautiful and peaceful.  It is easy to imagine that those who grieved their loved ones sought it out for the rest that they believed it would grant their dearly departed.

But I would venture to offer that there is far more going on in the cemetery than perhaps we like to admit.  Too often, what makes a cemetery seem peaceful is the absence of, well, people.  To forget that one is surrounded not only by nature, but by the souls of the dead.  And that not all of these souls went quietly into the night.

arlington-875457_960_720.jpgFor me, this disquieting fact rings most true in military cemeteries.  For there is little I can think of that is as sobering as Arlington Cemetery’s 634 acres of nearly identical tombstones marking the final resting places of over 300,000 fallen soldiers.  Or the knowledge that the fields at Gettysburg are drenched in the century-old blood of 10,000 men.  These places are not peaceful to me.  For me, they call to mind the peacelessness of silent cemeteries which Oscar Romero recalled when he spoke of our Christian duty to seek the Kingdom of God, over and against the violence of this world.

Timothy_H._O'Sullivan_-_Field_Where_General_Reynolds_Fell,_Gettysburg.jpg
The field at Gettysburg

For me, to stand at a memorial, or walk through a military cemetery, is to remember the cost of human conflict. To remember that this is what the world promises.  This is the only guarantee of military aggression–more white crosses dotting a hill.  More dead children mourned as a flag is folded.  We can give thanks for their love of country, for their obedience to the uniform, for their desire to make the world better through service to their country.  But we cannot mistake the stillness of their bodies and the quiet of the grave for anything close to peace or tranquility. Theirs is a silent and unending cry, which shouts to we who would stop and see: “THIS is the cost of war.”