Monday, June 24, 2013

Naboth's Vineyard

1st Kings 21: 15-22, OT page 329 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. Sermon I spent the summer after my junior year in college in Argentina. I was what the Presbyterian Church calls a missionary intern, meaning that I spent two months working beside a missionary in a small city not too much bigger than Columbia, located forty or so miles south of the capitol city of Argentina, Buenos Aires. I would ride the train up to Buenos Aires for meetings and things, which was wonderful. The trains were old and without air conditioning or seat belts. You could walk from one car to another, but at some risk, as there were no guard rails to keep you from flying off during the transition. People still did it, even while the train was moving, often to sell things to the passengers. Coffee vendors would go from one train car to the next, and so would others so that you could buy a nice pastry, a newspaper, or cigarettes. But some of these venders were selling nicer things – a salesman might walk from passenger to passenger wanting to show you a beautiful dress or a watch. On a train in Argentina you could buy a Rolex for five dollars that would tell the time perfectly until the exact moment you stepped off the train and onto the station platform. Then you would want your five dollars back but it would be too late. Sometimes these vendors would walk up and down the aisle giving their sales pitch to each individual, but often they would stand in front of the train car trying to get everyone’s attention all at once. The most notable sales display that took place at the front of one of these train cars closely resembled a commercial you’ve probably seen – a knife that can slice through a tin can without fail, managing to avoid going dull, and even after cutting through that tin can it can still perfectly slice a tomato into paper thin slices. Now you’ve seen that display from the safety of your own home, but I’ve seen it live on a moving train. And what would happen should the train hit a bump and the knives go flying? I don’t know but this man was selling those knives for only 19.99 – a compete set and the case was included. During this trip to Argentina came the realization that the rules that we have here to keep knife dealers out of moving vehicles, the inspectors that we have who give licenses to coffee sellers and other restaurants before they go selling their product to customers, and the laws – the laws that at their best are drawn up and legislated for the purpose of protecting you from any entity, the government itself included, who might do you harm – these standards by which our country runs – they are the standards by which our country runs and are not the standards by which every country runs. Traveling in another country is sort of like spending the night at a friend’s house then, you realize that not every family is like the family that you were born into, and while every kid grows up thinking that his family is normal, the truth is that the family you were born into is not normal but exceptional. I was invited out to dinner with a friend’s family when I was 6 or 7, and this family had always seemed to me to be perfectly normal, not at all unlike my own, but rather than having the chance to order chicken nuggets at the McDonalds like I had always done before, in this family all the orders were placed by the father and so I was handed a cheeseburger, which I wouldn’t have picked but I managed to eat any way, because part of getting along with others is being willing to adjust to new standards of behavior. I was later invited to spend the night at that same friend’s house, and at the breakfast table everyone poured milk on their cereal, then after eating all their cereal they either drank the excess or poured the remaining milk back in the milk jug to be used the next day. Now that was a difference I just couldn’t stand for, and so I quietly dumped my remaining milk down the drain. Some things you have to adjust to, you have to be tolerant of, but you can’t be tolerant of everything. It’s true that not every family orders at McDonalds the same way your family does. Not every family eats cereal the way you grew up eating it. Not every child was treated by her parents the way you were or are treated by your parents, and you can’t expect to find the standards of conduct that you grew up with at work in the world. What you have to get used to then are not absolutes, rules that all people everywhere subscribe to, but competing standards of conduct, justice, and righteousness. Take freedom for example. We are a people whose life is lived with laws, both sacred laws and secular laws, who, at their best encourage us to live within certain boundaries, standards of right and wrong, which allow us to live without doing ourselves or each other harm. But so many believe that freedom is something else. Janis Joplin sang that “freedom’s just another word for nothing left the loose,” which I don’t really agree with, but even worse is what King Ahab seemed to think – that freedom was the power to do whatever he wanted whenever he wanted, and this idea of freedom was shared by his wife who re-enforced his assumption. King Ahab’s standard of freedom was different, and this different standard of freedom informed King Ahab’s philosophy concerning property. You might call King Ahab a pure capitalist. In his world view everything is a commodity. Things are bought and sold, the price is set by the market value, and people like Naboth, well, they just don’t make any sense to people like Ahab. King Ahab goes to Naboth and said, “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.” It doesn’t sound like he’s trying to cheat or take advantage here. If anything, King Ahab is trying to make Naboth a fair offer, but what King Ahab doesn’t understand is that his philosophy of property and Naboth’s philosophy of property are different. Some things aren’t for sale, but some people can’t live with that reality. Nicole and Fred Stallcup have had a bus parked in their driveway for some time, and people assume it’s for sale, though it isn’t, and one man who went to the house asking Nicole if the bus were for sale got so frustrated when she told him that it isn’t, he told her to put a “Not for sale” sign on it. People assume that many things are for sale even if they are not and some people believe that everything is for sale, but Naboth was raised not thinking of his land as a commodity that could ever be bought or sold – no, to Naboth the land, his family’s land, was not something anyone could ever put a price tag on. In this case of differing views – you might even say competing views of how property should be handled, tolerance is not the answer, because one side has been informed by the Lord and the other by the desires of a King drunk with his own power. So Naboth said to Ahab, “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” It is as though he were saying, “It is not mine to give, and even though the King seems to allow it, even though it is the King himself who wants to buy it, the Lord, who is a greater power than any king forbids it.” Then King Ahab, like a spoiled child, confused by a person who is playing by a different set of rules, goes home “resentful and sullen… He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.” But Jezebel, the King’s wife, was also raised with a different philosophy of property, a different understanding of what power really looks like, and a different idea of what freedom really means. She is disgusted by her husband’s frustration and asks him, “Do you now govern Israel?” In her mind the Governing authority should be free to do what he wants, take what he wants, and read whatever emails he wants. A King should be able to decide what can be bought and sold, should be able to order people around, and no power should be greater than the King’s force of will – so Jezebel sees that Naboth and his foolish ideas about property and laws set by God must be silenced. And he is, as such voices often are. The rights to the family farm – well those rights are fine and good so long as those rights don’t stand in the way of progress, agribusiness, and innovation. Of course your friends or co-workers don’t want you to sacrifice your morals, but they still want you to go along with them and they may not want much to do with you if you don’t. And sure you all should have opinions, sure you should hold tight your standards of right and wrong – but don’t you dare make too much of a fuss should those opinions and standards get in the way of the wave of the future because you don’t want what happened to Naboth to happen to you. At least that is what Jezebel was counting on. That should she get Naboth out of the way than all these old fashioned ideas about land being something priceless that couldn’t be bought or sold would go away. But she wasn’t counting on Elijah showing up. Elijah went to King Ahab in Naboth’s vineyard once King Ahab had taken possession of it, and Elijah said, “I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord.” I suppose that is what King Ahab had forgotten – that when you abuse your power, when you give up on the ways of your people and when you sacrifice what is right to do what you want, whatever you gain in the process is nothing for you have sold yourself. While power has been abused and will continue to be abused, this truth will not go away. The nation who claims that justice is blind, who claims that all are innocent until proven guilty, may go and investigate her people without probable cause, encroaching on their privacy, but must not be so foolish as to think that she still stands for justice after doing so. And you, you must know that there are standards that you are called to, there are rules that should govern your life, and you cannot expect your friends, the company you work for, you cannot even expect your government to enforce them for you. But in abiding by these rules and standards, while the temptation will always be to compromise, nothing that might be gained by compromising can compare to what will be lost. Our world, as though Jezebel were whispering in its ear, tells us what freedom really is – that you are free when you can do whatever you want, when you are free to choose what is convenient, when no one stands in the way of what is best for business or what seems in the moment to be absolutely necessary – but as the words to our final hymn put it so plainly, “We are not free when we’re confined to every wish that sweeps the mind.” That will not be the most melodious line you ever sing, but it is among the truest. King Ahab thought he was free, but he wasn’t. Know that freedom, true freedom, is found when standards of right and wrong set the limits of your behavior. Know that with such freedom there is much to be gained; but in following every whim, every wish, every temptation, you will lose much and may even lose yourself. And know also, that when everyone else seems to be living by a different code of ethics from the standards and limits that you have been taught to observe, when these standards and limits seem dangerously inconvenient or seem to be holding you back and setting you apart from everyone around you, know that in this moment you are not alone, for the Lord is with you. And the Lord set these standards so that you might know what freedom really is. Amen.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Elijah Meets God at Horeb

1st Kings 19: 8-15, OT page 326 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 alters, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life to take it away.” The word of the Lord 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 alters, 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.” Sermon Over the past few weeks we have been reading about Elijah, and just last Sunday was the story of Elijah’s great triumph over the priests of Baal. It was a dramatic contest, two alters with a bull on each alter, wood piled up around. The god who answered by fire would be recognized as the true god of Israel, so the priests of Baal numbering 450 called out to heaven for their god to light the wood of their alter. When no fire came Elijah began to taunt them – “Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is asleep and must be awakened.” At that the priests tried harder to gain Baal’s attention, cutting themselves with swords and lances until blood gushed out over them, but “there was no voice, no answer, and no response.” Then Elijah, greatly outnumbered, has the wood surrounding his alter soaked with water three times, then he calls out, “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 whereas Baal remained silent, even as his priests mutilated themselves before his alter, at the words of Elijah fire poured down from heaven consuming “the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water.” Now after such an incredible triumph you might expect Elijah to reap the reward due to God’s faithful servant. Instead, not long after the sacrifice burns Elijah flees for his life as the evil Queen Jezebel plots to kill him. Sometimes that is the way it is – the reward you expect is not always the reward you receive. That was the case for a fine man named Roy. Roy is a member of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church, the last church I served, and when I saw him last Tuesday at a funeral I remembered a story about him. Despite the 50 years difference in our ages, Roy and I formed a close relationship and hit it off right away, shortly after finding out that we had both attended the same college in South Carolina. After serving in World War 2 Roy was invited to play tennis there at Presbyterian College, and after playing for four years there, shortly after graduation he was invited to contribute financially to the tennis program, which he did faithfully. One year, in addition to the financial request, Roy received a letter inviting him up to Presbyterian College to celebrate his many years of faithful contributions at the ribbon cutting for the new tennis courts. Roy was excited to attend, and as he drove up to Clinton, South Carolina his mind wandered about what this might be all about. He had after all contributed to the program faithfully for nearly 50 years. He had been a better than average tennis player in his day. And they were opening up these brand new tennis courts that would be requiring a name – why the Roy Brown Tennis Complex didn’t sound too bad now did it? Somewhat excitedly he approached the ceremony, took his seat, and when his name was called to come forward to be recognized he accepted his Presbyterian College coffee mug proudly. Sometimes that is the way it is – the reward you expect is not always the reward you receive. So even after his extreme display of faith and courage in soundly defeating the priests of Baal and doing his very best to turn the hearts of the people of Israel back to the one true God, Elijah sat down under a solitary broom tree after his first day on the run for his life. Then he asked God that he might die saying, “It is enough; now O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” An angel woke him up after he had fallen asleep to feed him a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. Then after sleeping the angel of the Lord came a second time bringing food and said, “get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, 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.” Not one bit of this sounds quite like a pat on the back, and given the choice between the cake baked on hot stones and glass of water or a coffee mug from Presbyterian College, I think I’d take the coffee mug. Elijah is not being rewarded or encouraged, and surely he must have been wondering where this God who was so present back on Mount Carmel, even raining down fire on his sacrifice, had gone off to. Now it was not Baal who seemed to be sleeping or off on a journey but God. You may know the feeling. God seems particularly absent in the moments following God’s intense presence. But that is the way it is with everything. Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote: “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” but those who have had love fill up an empty space now know that space to have been empty and feel that empty space profoundly when the one the one who filled it up is gone. The man who once had use of two good hands is forever haunted by the memory of their use when one hand is lost, and all those who have been healthy and strong long for those better days as aches and pains pile up, because they know it has not always been this way. Those who have never known these things – while they may suffer from the absence just the same – the frustration is different because you can’t mourn the loss of something that you never knew. So I’m not as frustrated by political correctness – I never knew a time when school began with prayer. I don’t feel stifled by a culture that seems to many to be almost hostile to religion because the only culture that I have ever known has celebrated Santa Clause at Christmas while hardly mentioning Jesus and has tried it’s best to keep religion out of public life. For as long as I have been alive the separation between church and state has been an insurmountable chasm that I don’t resent because it’s always been there. But I understand how those of you who knew how it used to be would grow frustrated, just as Elijah must have felt terribly alone there in that solitary cave because he had only just seen God so powerfully present. He must have wondered then – if God can rain down fire why can’t God stop Jezebel from hunting me down like an animal? If God can rain down fire than why can’t God provide me with a decent bed to sleep in? If God can rain down fire then why has God gone and left me all alone? 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.” Then the word of the Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then “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 came 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.” Now God had come before in the wind – blowing back the sea so that the people, led by Moses, might cross over on dry land as they fled from Egypt – but God was not in the wind. God had come before in an earthquake; in the earthquake that swallowed up a group of men seeking to corrupt the people with their idolatry, then again God used an earthquake to strike fear into the Philistine army during war – but this time God was not in the earthquake. And God had come before in fire – and Elijah had seen it first hand as fire rained down from heaven on the sacrifice back at Mount Carmel, and while God had been there, now God was not in the fire. This time God was in the sound of sheer silence, but would you have recognized God there? I heard a story about a man who lost his sight, and not being able to see would often find himself unable to locate certain things in new places. In a new hotel room he was not able to find the phone because the phone was not on the coffee table where he expected it to be, but in a little alcove above the couch, a place he had never imagined a phone would be. The greatest challenge of losing his sight, he said, is that if you make the mistake in the mental image of your surroundings, you get stuck inside the mistake. So if you have never imagined that a phone could be in an alcove you will be without a phone though it is right there. And if you have never imagined that God could be present in silence – if in your experience you have only known God to be present in wind, earthquakes, and fire – then you will not recognize God in the silence because you are stuck inside your mental image of who God is. When what you expected to happen doesn’t happen. When your body or your life changes in ways you did not ever expect them to change. When the world that you grew up in no longer looks like the world that you remember. When God is no longer present the way God used to be present – does that mean that God is absent? I tell you it is a strange thing our culture. There are fights about all kinds of things, and it’s not easy for me to tell which fights are worth fighting and which ones aren’t. But of this I am absolutely sure – just because God changed, that did not mean that God had left Elijah alone. And just because our culture has changed, our lives change, things will never change so much that God will cease being God or that God will leave you and this creation behind. You must expect God to be at work in new ways. For while Elijah ran back to the mountain where God had been most powerfully present in the history of his people, he was not called to minister where God had once been but where God would be. Go – go back to the wilderness of Damascus Elijah, for the Lord has work for you to do there. Look – look at the world around you and do not be surprised to see God at work in new ways, for God will always be at work and is never far in times of trouble. And hold fast – for while things change, life changes, bodies change and even fade away – while God may change and while God may be at work in you and new and different ways, God will never fade away. Amen.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The God who answers by fire

1st Kings 18: 30-39, OT page 325 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, 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 the 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 in deed is God.” Sermon “Which religion will win?” Such a question would make a fine title for the 1st and 2nd scripture lessons we’ve read this morning, as these lessons describe the great clerical battle between the priest of Baal who numbered four hundred and fifty, and God’s sole prophet Elijah who stands alone. They build up competing alters, and the god who lights their respective alter on fire when called on prevails. “Which religion will win?” - Our scripture lesson for this morning answers this question, but in our world today too many wonder. In the mind of many, our world is the stage for the battle against Islam. This battle has been raging in Israel and Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan; it has even spread to New York City, London, Paris, Nigeria, and the Sudan. “Which religion will win?” many ask. And a look back on history is the sure sign that this battle has been raging for hundreds of years. The Muslim occupation of much of Western Europe is a memory that lives on in the minds of many. The French croissant is a legacy to the Crescent of Islam, the Muslim occupiers having left their mark. In Turkey, the great seat of Eastern Christianity was a city once known as Constantinople, now known as Istanbul. The great cathedral there was the Hagia Sophia, turned into a mosque and a mosque it remained for over 500 years. Sometimes we forget just how long it has been that human beings have been fighting over religious supremacy. The truth of evangelism is that it can turn violent; coercion by the sword can replace the joyful choice to be baptized. Constantine invades Rome with Christian symbols on his army’s shields and eventually Christianity becomes the official religion of the Roman Empire; Crusaders invade Jerusalem in the name of the Prince of Peace in an attempt to call the birthplace of Christianity theirs; and the last words out of the mouths of terrorists are words of scripture for violence in the name of religious conquest is a common idea and an effective tool for conversion; but our first and second scripture lessons from 1st Kings is not the story of military conquest or terrorism fueled by religion. The nation of Israel was not forced to turn to another religion at the hand of a wicked and vengeful army from some foreign land. No, the move away from God and towards the worship of Baal was gradual and was launched, not by a foreign army, but came from within and began with Israel’s own king. There was a wedding that started it – the King of Israel married Jezebel and, maybe to keep his new wife happy, he joined her in worshiping her gods. Then Jezebel began killing off the prophets of God and replaced them with priests of her own, but that is not the Prophet Elijah’s primary concern. What concerns the prophet is that the hearts of the people turned away. Without their prophets to speak words of truth the people went looking for guidance elsewhere. When faith in God became unfashionable, when being a worshiper of Baal made it easier to make good social and business connections, promotions and job opportunities, too quickly the people left behind the God who took them out of Egypt into the Promised Land in favor of a new god who promised to see them into a bright future. But what is more, is that Elijah proclaimed that there would be a drought in the land – that because King Ahab turned away and worshiped the gods of his wife Jezebel there “shall be neither dew nor rain.” When farmers know that their crops are failing, that their families face starvation, the question is not where to turn, but where will they not turn? When parents have hungry children and hear the voice of some foreign priest proclaiming a message of deliverance and provision, the question is not whether or not they will turn to idolatry, but what idols won’t they turn to. And while our world is asking, “Which religion will win?” the real question is not about which extremist group trying their hand at conquering the world will end up on top, but just how many individuals will leave Christianity in favor of something – anything – that promises to get them where they want to go? Where won’t people turn in times of need? Have people not been drawn to Scientology because they don’t know where to turn, they lack any kind of direction, but they sure like the idea of being like John Travolta or Tom Cruise? Have smart kids not been seduced by atheism because of the idea that no self-respecting scientist believes the stories told in scripture? Has the idea that religion is nothing more than superstition that causes more harm than good not gained traction among the high minded of the academy and the humanitarians seeking rights for women and children? And has the idea of celebrity not seduced the talented with promises of wealth and fame? Will parents not sacrifice the wellbeing of their children to get on TV? Has the lottery not fooled too many with its razor thin chance at riches? Will the ones who don’t have enough not give up what they do have on the chance of making it big? Does television not corrupt all our minds with easy fixes for problems we didn’t even know we had? Does advertising for medicine not sound more than a little bit creepy? It’s easy to see this battle between the priests of Baal and the prophet Elijah as an ancient equivalent to the religious wars of today – but the greatest enemy of Christianity today is not the fundamentalist terrorist? The priests I worry about are not preaching to bowed converts through loud speakers. The enemy that Elijah battles with is the enemy who polluted the hearts of the people of Israel, and this enemy is dangerous because this enemy has seduced our very culture and has stolen the hearts of all of us. We Christians know that the first will be last and the last will be first – that the only way to be somebody in the Kingdom of God is to humble yourself – to identify with the poor and the helpless, to serve the sick and the afflicted. But have you not been persuaded by the cult of fame telling you that to be somebody you must associate with the people who can do something for you – that to really count you need to drive the right car, live in the right neighborhood, have the right clothes as though the model for our lives was a well-heeled socialite and not a poor carpenter from some backwater town in Israel. We Christians know that wealth will not solve all our problems, that riches cannot buy happiness, and we all follow Jesus who said that the one who has two coats should give one away to the one who has none – but – have you not been persuaded by the gods of commerce to overspend and to buy more than you need? Have advertisements not informed you of what you really need? And have you not been made to feel inferior because you can’t buy it all as though status in the Kingdom of Heaven had to do with the size of your bank account and not the size of your heart. And we Christians naturally desire peace – but how quickly will we turn to violence to solve our problems? Have the gods of violence not infiltrated your religion? Has the idea that the only real way problems get solved is through the use of intimidation and force not completely infiltrated our minds as though our guns were more powerful than our words. The Israelites left the God of their ancestors, not out of a baseless whim, but because the God of their ancestors seemed unable to put food on their tables. They left the God who brought them out of Egypt, gave them the Promised Land, because plants can grow without history, but they cannot grow without water and the priests of Baal promised to bring rain. So Elijah does not try to convince them with his words. He does not prophecy. He does not try to kindle fear with fire and brimstone preaching. Instead he lays the groundwork for a contest – appealing to the people’s need he forces the people to choose and challenges the prophets of Baal to make good on their promises. Can they bring the rain? Can they provide for the people? Who is the God who can bring fire on the mountain? Elijah, it would seem is the last of the faithful, but with a faith stronger than fear, wagering his very life on the provision of God not only sets the stage for this battle of faith, but ups the ante by pouring water over a sacrifice the people didn’t expect to burn in the first place. And the fire the people didn’t expect to burn doesn’t simply burn, but burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and also licked up the water in the trench. And as the smoke raised from the flames the doubt of the people, their idolatries, and the authority they gave to the false prophets of Baal rose with it as the flames burned a fiery purity among the people of God. Unfortunately for us though, the prophets of Baal are still alive and well, and they still have a voice. They have convinced many, who, out of a desire to be recognized and to matter will do whatever it takes to make a good impression on those who our culture says are important. Out of a desire to be happy they will shop and shop in a world of consumers where we are all told that anything that anyone needs can be bought if you just have enough money. And out of fear too many turn to violence, but the god of violence has not provided what was promised, only what we should have expected. So here we are again – and Elijah calls us to come closer – to recognize that while promises have been made by our celebrity obsessed, advertisement driven, and violence obsessed culture, our culture cannot make good on the promises it has made – for there is only one true God for you and for me, and this God calls you back today even if your mind and your heart have turned away. Are you not desperate for something real? Are you not longing for one who makes good on promises? When you are cast aside by the prophets of Baal: laid off by the job you gave your heart and soul to, up to your neck in debt having chased happiness in what you did not have without ever finding it, when violence rears its ugly head, your helper will be ever near. For just as God rained down fire for the sake of the people of Israel, so God came to earth, took human form, and offered his life, his very body and blood so that you would see that while there are many powers in this world who desire your allegiance, there is only one God. To get your attention, not because he might get anything in return, Christ went to the cross to call you back. “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.” Amen.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Give me your son

1st Kings 17: 17-24, OT page 324 After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. She then said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” But he said to her, “Give me your son.” He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. He cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah, the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.” So the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that this word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” Sermon I was in the Maury County library a couple years ago and was glad to run into the Corbin family. We were all there for story time, a time when one of the librarians reads a book and leads children in doing a craft, but Christian Corbin was a little too big for the story that the librarian was reading and was instead reading himself a book on his Kindle. These Kindles are incredible inventions – a little pad, battery powered with a screen that you can easily carry around and that can hold in its memory hundreds of books. I asked him what he was reading and he happened to be reading The Call of the Wild by Jack London. I have read that book myself, but the more interesting thought that occurred to me in that moment was that my grandfather also read the book as a child and he loved it. In fact I remember him telling me that he loved it so much that when he was 9 or 10 he had trouble making himself stop reading to go to bed in their house out in the Caw Caw Swamp of South Carolina, and once his parents settled into their room, he’d sneak out of his own bed, re-light his candle, and would continue reading by candlelight while nervously listening for the footsteps of his mother and father who would surely be disappointed to see him out of bed so late. The book both Christian and my grandfather loved is the same, which shows me that there are some things that all young boys, no matter what time they were born into, have in common. But the way they read the same book is so different, showing me that young boys and old men also have something exciting to share with each other. I don’t know many 10 year olds today who have ever read by candle light, nor do I know any once 10 year olds now 80 year olds who can operate a Kindle. The question is, considering how interesting these differences are, it’s a pity how seldom the two have the chance to share their particular experiences with each other. In fact, I think it’s a pity how seldom any two people have the chance to sit together to learn from each other. This widow and her son in 1st Kings don’t seem to be in much of a position to share anything with anyone else as it sounds from our scripture lessons as though they were living in relative isolation. Certainly they have never met the great prophet Elijah nor have they even heard of him, and it is with some reluctance that the widow allows him to come to her house. For her it is a matter, not of choice, but of circumstance – she might very much want to be hospitable, she might very much want to give Elijah and her son the chance to talk, but there is simply no food to share with another empty stomach. The drought has been severe in the land, and as these things often do, the drought made life more difficult for those who were already scrapping the bottom of the barrel. When Elijah came to the gate of the town and saw this widow who the Lord had said would feed him, she was there gathering sticks to prepare her last meal: “As the Lord your God lives,” she says to him, “I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” Now I’ve heard some good excuses but surely this is the best reason not to invite someone over for dinner. It beats out, “we are just so tied up this week,” “the house needs to be cleaned,” “the kids have so much homework,” or any other excuse any of us might use that keeps us from inviting guests over to our homes. What happens then is that the kinds of interactions that we really need have less and less of a chance of happening. Many remember knowing neighbors very well, but few of us know our neighbors now and even fewer have been invited into even our neighbor’s homes. As a culture we pretty much stick to ourselves, which can be good for building up the family but so truly there are times when children have a need that their parents, no matter how capable, cannot supply. That was the case in our scripture lesson from 1st Kings. The son of the widow became sick, so sick that “there was no breath left in him,” and feeling helpless and powerless to do anything about it the widow lashes out at Elijah saying, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” But he said to her, “Give me your son.” You might say – what other choice did she have – but still, there is nothing easy about handing your child over to someone. The first day of preschool makes that plain, when teachers, prepared to care for little children dropped off at school for the very first time wind up having to deal with, not crying children but crying parents. “The kids are fine,” I heard Ms. Becky at my daughter Lily’s preschool once say, “but you parents, you’re something else altogether.” A tremendous amount of trust is required to drop your child off, even for the morning when you know their back-pack is packed and their lunch is made. Even more is required to drop them off when they’ll be spending the night away from home here at camp, entrusting what is so precious to a camp staff that you might be meeting for the very first time. But can you imagine handing your child over to a man you only know because he’s been squatting at your house, living off the last crumbs in your cupboard. Still Elijah says, “Give me your son,” And he took him from her bosom, carried him to the upper chamber and called out to God, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” And Elijah was able to do something for the boy that even his mother couldn’t do. Thanks be to God, that there at the end of what his mother was capable of doing for him – there beyond all her skills and her longings – there, in the place of what she couldn’t do stood this man of God who could. But there isn’t always someone standing there. Our society seems to be pulling inward, and rather than seeing in those on the outside of our nuclear families our salvation in times of need, so often we view others with suspicion, as parents struggle to trust the care of their children to anyone. And it is for good reason – we are living in an age of back-ground checks because there are those in our world who would hurt them. There are those in our world who will not treasure them as we do. There are people in this world who we need to guard ourselves against – but we must fight the temptation to guard ourselves against everyone for too often the salvation of a child rests in the hands of someone besides that child’s mother or father. I’ve heard from John Satterwhite many times, that his dream of being a farmer became a reality, not because his own father taught him, but because his own father carried him down to the farm of Winn Halliday and entrusted his son to the expertise of this man who could teach his son what he could not. For my own father this was true in an even greater sense. His father was with the air force and had developed a drinking problem, but where his father lacked the ability to nurture my Dad in many ways, there stood a Boy Scout leader who saw in my father great potential that he encouraged and built up in those areas that lacked. The same has been true for me as well, not because my parents were failures, but because they, like all people have gifts and skills – and what can a mathematician and a theater major do with an aspiring preacher but trust that their son will need mentors besides them, that he will need to be guided by the knowhow of others, that they, as parents, will have to trust their son to the care of people besides themselves. In one way you parents might think, what could be more horrible or more difficult than to admit that there are things that you cannot do for your children? Surely such lack must feel like failure. But that is the wrong way to look at it. Instead see that children may be loved more fully by people who are not your flesh and blood. That the love of God and the promises of God’s salvation may be incarnate in people who you barely know, and no parent should ever keep their child from such love as this. Sue Dunneback told me last week that she would be seeing me at Lily’s dance recital. I wondered at first why she would be going, thinking that the grandson of hers that I hear so much about must have a lot to contend with on his riffle team if in addition to being a marksmen he is also a ballerina. But Ms. Sue’s grandson isn’t a dancer. She was going, and made sure that Hal Landers got her tickets to the recital because, she said, “All our little girls are into dance Joe, so I have to be there.” I must have looked at her like I too often do, not knowing exactly what she meant, because she looked at me as she so often does with an expression of exasperation as though surely I should not be so dense. After a while I did understand. By “our children” she meant my children, she meant your children, to Ms. Sue they are hers too. The great gift of a church like our church and a day like today is that this bond between people has the chance to become more real. The promises that we make at a baptism, promising to care for and nurture and make real the love of God to a child that we aren’t related to has a chance to take on arms and legs when we are all together in a creek or around a table. God has set us here to this place because ultimately we all have needs that cannot be satisfied within the confines of the families that we were born into, and so you must seize this time to care for those children that need you, to care for adults that need you, because in this family of faith we belong to each other. “Give me your son” Elijah said, and when his mother entrusted her boy to that old man he came back to life. Now be so bold to believe that such miracles can still happen in the family of faith. Amen.