Sermon for May 2, 2016 – Speaking in Faith

Luke 7: 1-10

Back on December 27, John Dickerson interviewed Stephen Colbert on “Face the Nation.”  Dickerson asked him about his dream interview, and Colbert said that he would love to be able to interview Jesus.  He joked about the questions he would ask. He also had a request that he said he would voice to Jesus if he could::  “Would you put in a good word with Your Dad for me?” After all, if we wanted to ask someone to put in a good word for us, what better to ask than Jesus, right?  And who better to ask to intervene for us with God, right?  And actually, isn’t that what Jesus has done?  Right?

In fact, that is just what happens in today’s scripture reading.  There are actually two requests for help, for asking others with connections to put in a good word on behalf of someone else.  The first is this, from Luke 7: 1-3:  After Jesus had finished all His sayings in the hearing of the people, He entered Capernaum. 2A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. 3When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to Him, asking Him to come and heal His slave.   Jesus had just come from two dramatic healings: the healing of a leper, and the healing of a paralyzed man, whose desperate friends had unroofed the house Jesus was staying at and lowered the paralyzed man, sleeping mat and all, down in front of Jesus.  The stories of these miraculous healings would have spread like wildfire, and gotten to the ears of this particular centurion.  His business was to know what was getting the locals excited, so he could be sure to head things off and kept things cal.  This news, however, would have held out promise – a particular slave, who mattered to the centurion was very ill.  Perhaps, the centurion reasoned, Jesus would be willing to heal even a gentile.  And so this centurion appeals to folks with good connections to Jesus, asking them, in effect, to put in a good word for him so that Jesus would respond, and come to heal this human being, this slave.  The elders the centurion approached in turn approached Jesus: 

 4When they [the elders] came to Jesus, they appealed to Him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having You do this for him, 5for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” 6And Jesus went with them....  Here is when the centurion revealed his trust in Jesus – when he learned that Jesus was indeed coming, this is how the centurion responded:  when He was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have You come under my roof; 7therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.”  The centurion was willing to ask the elders to put in that good word; when it became clear that Jesus was indeed responsive, the centurion drew on his life experiences and adjusted his request.  As a righteous, or God-fearing Gentile, the centurion knew that if Jesus actually came to and entered his house, Jesus would become ritually unclean.   As a military officer in the Roman Empire, the centurion knew about giving orders.  A soldier accused of disobeying the order of a superior officer in the Roman Army would face a court-martial.  After the trial, which virtually always yielded a guilty verdict, the disobedient soldier would be stoned or beaten to death by his fellow soldier-comrades. 

 The centurion absolutely expected that any orders Jesus would care to give, any action Jesus would care to take, would be completed, whether or not Jesus was physically present.  What an incredible statement of faith!  9When Jesus heard this He was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed Him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” 10When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.  Whether we want to call this a belief in the power structure, or faith in Jesus Himself – either way, the centurion spoke in faith.  He had no doubt that if Jesus gave the word, that slave would be healed.  This God-fearing centurion had learned the lesson that the Creator cares for all created beings, whether slave or soldier, Roman citizen or person living in the occupied territory that Judah was in those times.  He had had others put in a good word for him, and he knew Jesus had responded.  He responded in humility – Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have You come under my roof; 7therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.  He trusted in the intercession others made on his behalf, and he trusted that Jesus would respond to that request for healing.   Others had received healing.  He trusted that if he asked, his servant would receive the same gracious response.

When we pray for others, those we know and those we don’t know, we are putting in a good word for others.  We know that God listens to the prayers of the righteous – but it is not because WE are so good that God listens – it is because Jesus died for us, to redeem us and save us, it is because on the third day He rose from the dead – it is because of our salvation that we can indeed intercede for others.  And when we do intercede for others – and when we pray for ourselves as well – we know that God listens, and that somehow God will respond.  We understand something that the centurion did not yet understand – we are not presuming when we come to Jesus in prayer.  No – because of our salvation Jesus welcomes us.  Jesus listens to us.  Jesus comforts and consoles us.  Jesus strengthens us.  And often Jesus empowers US to be able to work in this world to make things better for those for whom we pray.

Speaking in faith for Christians should lead to acting in faith.  The centurion acted in faith when he sent friends to Jesus saying that it wasn’t necessary for Jesus to physically come to lay hands on his slave – just say the word and my servant will be healed.  The centurion was a soldier.  We, however, are more than soldiers; we are ambassadors for Christ.  2 Corinthians 5: 17-20:  17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making His appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  We are to be ambassadors; when we are in right relationship with God, we can live into that call  Paul also addressed this question with the Colossians in chapter 1:  

19For in [Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through Him God was pleased to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of His cross. 21And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22He has now reconciled in His fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before Him— 23provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.

As people who have been reconciled to God, as people who are called to be ambassadors for Christ, I have a small challenge for us today, on Memorial Day weekend:  Memorial Day is tomorrow.  It is a day we set aside as a secular society to thank our veterans, both those who fought and returned, and those who fought and died in service to America.  So thank a vet.  Attend a parade tomorrow, or at least go to a cemetery, find a grave where a flag is planted, and put in a good word for that soldier.  Better, act on behalf of our soldiers who are here, and are struggling with what they have experienced.  There are many ways to do that:  Go with Charlie Garafano and visit vets in the VA hospital in Lyons.  Get involved with efforts to honor vets – in his May 25 column in the Star Ledger, Mark Di Ionno wrote about three people, Ted Romankow, 75,  Stephan Siara, 37, and Andrew Gallietlli, 18, none of whom are vets but all of whom worked together to refurbish Veterans Memorial Park in Berkley Heights, as a way to honor their service.  In Friday’s column Mark wrote about the combat-related death of Michael Patrick Burke, an Iraqi veteran who suffered from PTSD, who hung himself on October 21, 2015.  The psychological wounds are hard to see, and very very real.  Reach out to veterans who have come back from service who are struggling to adjust.  Call 52waystoloveavet, one of the missions we supported this year through the art auction and walk-a-thon and ask how to help, if this touches your heart.

We ARE ambassadors for Christ.  May we put in good words for others, and may we also speak in faith, knowing that God hears the prayers of the people He has made righteous through faith.  May we remember to act on our faith, doing those things that make for God’s perfect shalom, until Jesus returns in glory.  And even so, come soon, Lord Jesus.  Amen. 

Merriam-Webster definition of faith:

Full Definition of faith

plural faiths play \ˈfāths, sometimes ˈfāthz\

a :  allegiance to duty or a person :  loyalty
 b (1) :  fidelity to one's promises (2) :  sincerity of intentions

a (1) :  belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2) :  belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion 
b (1) :  firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2) :  complete trust

:  something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially :  a system of religious beliefs <the Protestant faith>

Full Definition of trust

a :  assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something
b :  one in which confidence is placed

a :  dependence on something future or contingent :  hope
b :  reliance on future payment for property (as merchandise) delivered :  credit <bought furniture on trust>

a :  a property interest held by one person for the benefit of another
b :  a combination of firms or corporations formed by a legal agreement; especially :  one that reduces or threatens to reduce competition

 archaic :  trustworthiness

a (1) :  a charge or duty imposed in faith or confidence or as a condition of some relationship (2) :  something committed or entrusted to one to be used or cared for in the interest of another
b :  responsible charge or office
c :  care, custody <the child committed to her trust>

May 22, 2016 – Declaring Wisdom

Proverbs 8: 1-4, 22-31

John 16: 12-15

The world is full of advice.  Just ask, and good advice rains down:
Buy low, sell high.
Many hands make light work.
From our dentists:  brush daily, and floss regularly.
Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.
Eat more vegetables.
Get more exercise.
Always use your seatbelt.

Y’all know that “Many hands make light work” is one of my favorites.  And any kid on any of my buses ever knows that I believe in seatbelts.  The wisdom of the world: conventional wisdom.  And those words ARE good advice.

There is another kind of wisdom however, a deeper kind of wisdom, the kind of wisdom that comes from the Holy Spirit.  It’s available to all.  Listen to these words from Proverbs 8: 1-4:  Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise Her voice?

2On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads She takes her stand;
3beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals She cries out: 4“To you, O people, I call, and My cry is to all that live.  Wisdom does not take up her stand inside the city – instead She calls to everyone that passes by.  She cries out to all the world.  She says: My cry is to all that live.  My cry is to ALL that live.  God, through wisdom, reveals God’s very self to everyone. How?  Through the beauty and design of the universe.  Wisdom recognizes this.  The Jews believe that Torah, which comes directly from Wisdom, was present at the very creation of the universe.  That is the idea behind natural theology – that God does indeed reveal God’s very Self to everyone.  Psalm 8 reminds us: 1O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is Your name in all the earth! You have set Your glory above the heavens. 2Out of the mouths of babes and infants You have founded a bulwark because of Your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger. 3When I look at Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars that You have established; 4what are human beings that You are mindful of them, mortals that You care for them?  5Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.  But we need more than the natural revelation given to us by God’s magnificent creation – we need to know that not only that God is mindful of us, but that God rejoices in us.  It is not enough for Wisdom to delight in the human race; we need for God to rejoice in us as well.  And so, in the fullness of time, God sent His only begotten Son, Jesus, into the world.  And when God did that, God upset virtually everything that human beings understand through conventional wisdom.

Consider Joseph, Mary’s betrothed, who was going to divorce her quietly, since she was pregnant – and he knew HE was not the father.  Conventional wisdom demanded that he divorce her.  God’s messenger Gabriel revealed God’s wisdom to Joseph.  Consider the magi, those who came looking for a king.  Where did they go?  Where conventional wisdom said they would find the infant born King of the Jews: to the palace in Jerusalem.  They were redirected to Bethlehem by the wisdom that comes from the Word of God, from scripture, which the priests laid out for them, ironically at Herod’s request.  Consider how Joseph fled in the middle of the night to Egypt with Mary and Jesus, because of the warning from the angel.  Conventional wisdom would say wait because the baby was too young to travel; surely God would protect God’s own Son.

When Jesus began His earthly ministry, He really upset conventional wisdom.  Love your enemies?  Bless those who curse you?  If someone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other side also?  If someone demands your coat, give them your cloak too?  In today’s lectionary reading from the Gospel of John, as Jesus is speaking to, and encouraging, His disciples shortly before He knows He will be arrested and tortured, tried, convicted and nailed to a cross, Jesus says this:  John 16: 12-15  [Jesus said,] 12“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own, but will speak whatever He hears, and He will declare to you the things that are to come. 14He will glorify Me, because He will take what is Mine and declare it to you. 15All that the Father has is Mine. For this reason I said that He will take what is Mine and declare it to you.”  What is Jesus’?  Everything.  All that the Father has.  Everything.  Instead of payback, we are to bless.  Instead of hatred, we are to love.

This is an amazingly attractive idea, even as it is also so counter to the wisdom of the world.  It is so incredibly attractive that non-Christians are drawn to it.  On my school bus, I drive a wide variety of kids, from a wide variety of faith backgrounds: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindi, and no particular faith background, as well.  One of my Muslim kids is a wonderful young woman I have known for five years or so, who has been thinking pretty deep thoughts for a very long time.  She is generally upbeat, but over the past year she has made a very conscious effort to be positive, encouraging, and thankful.  One day Noor told me why: one of her BFFs is a young Roman Catholic girl.  Noor and Emily have been friends for years, and so see how each other react to different situations. Noor fairly recently made this decision: when she thinks about how to react to any given situation, she says to herself:  WWED?  What would Emily do?  And she follows Emily’s example.  Culturally it would be much more difficult for Noor to say WWJD, but that is what is on Emily’s mind when she chooses HER reactions to the things that life tosses at her over the course of a day.  Emily’s behavior shows more clearly than any learned discourse, any magnificently-delivered sermon, Who it is that she follows, Who it is that has given her her salvation.  Emily shows through her life that Jesus is her Lord and Savior.  The very first thing any Princeton Theological Seminary student learns in Preaching 101 is just that: the most important sermon any of us will ever give is how we live our lives.

So what kind of sermons are we preaching, with our lives?  What kind of wisdom is visible in our lives?  Conventional wisdom, or the wisdom that comes from God?  The wisdom that comes from the Spirit of truth testifies to the power of such wondrous love as this: God, through Jesus Christ, the Lord of bliss, paid the price for us, for our salvation.  Our charge is to share this wondrous love with the rest of creation.  We CAN choose our behavior, and love our enemies, bless those who curse us, and extend God’s love to this lost and broken world, that needs that Light in the darkness more than ever.   Declaring that wisdom, the wisdom of God, is made visible in our lives through what we do, and don’t do.  What wisdom do WE reveal?  Let us pray:  Lord God, give us hearts of love, for You alone, so we can proclaim Your wisdom, in word and in deed, until Jesus returns in glory.  And even so, come soon, Lord Jesus.  Amen.

May 8, 2016 – Who Knows?

Esther 4

 Thirty games into the National Baseball season, the leaders in the American League East are the Baltimore Orioles and the Boston Red Sox. Baltimore is ahead on percentage points - .586 to Boston’s .567, but while they both have won the same number of games – 17 – Boston has played one more game than Baltimore, and has one more loss – Boston has lost 13 games so far, while Baltimore has only lost 12.  The Yankees?  Last place in the American League East – 11 wins, 17 losses, and a winning percentage of .393.  In the National League East, right now the Washington Nationals are tearing it up with 19 wins and only 11 losses, .633.  The New York Mets are right behind them at 18 wins and 11 losses, .621.  My beloved Phillies are in fourth place, at 17 wins and 14 losses, and a .548 record.  The Atlanta Braves have the worst record in major league baseball, 7 and 22, with a .241 record.  I don’t know about God’s preferred future, but for the Yankees and the Braves, we can see how the mighty have fallen – NOT the preferred future their fanatical fans had anticipated!  You can be sure that scouts and coaches are scrutinizing their rookies, hoping they have some young players who may fulfill the dreams of their fans – Who knows but that you’ve come to us for such a time as this??  This is baseball!  Who knows, indeed??

Last week we thought about God’s preferred future, and how God positions people FOR that future, just as good baseball scouts and coaches try to position their young players for the good of the team in the years to come.  God placed Mordecai and his adopted niece, Esther, into positions of power in Babylon.  Mordecai was one of the members of the court’s secret police. Esther was the queen.  They seemed to have the world by the tail.  They seemed to have it all: power, fame, wealth, influence at the highest levels of the kingdom – until the enemy acted against them.  In their case it was another official, one Haman, who also had a high level position at court.  Unlike Mordecai, who had protected the king from a plot to assassinate him, Haman was most concerned about his own position of power.  When Mordecai refused to grovel and bow to him, Haman went to the king and convinced the king to act against the Jews as a people, confiscating all of their wealth and property, and murdering them all, men, women and children, at a specific point in the immediate future.  That’s where chapter 4 opens: Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went through the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry; 2he went up to the entrance of the king’s gate, for no one might enter the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth. 3In every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and most of them lay in sackcloth and ashes. 4When Esther’s maids and her eunuchs came and told her, the queen was deeply distressed; she sent garments to clothe Mordecai, so that he might take off his sackcloth; but he would not accept them.  Esther was insulated from this news, inside the palace.  She sent Hathach, the eunuch who was her attendant, out to find out what was going on. Hathach went out and spoke with Mordecai, who told him the whole sordid story.   Mordecai also send back a request – that Esther go to the king and ask him to reverse this decree.  Esther sent a message back to Mordecai - “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.”   Mordecai sends back this reply:  “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. 14For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”  Who knows, Mordecai says.  God will send a savior – but we will die, unless you act.  Maybe you have become queen, have been put into that influential position, to be used by the Lord God to protect our people, as well as our own selves.  

         Last week, after the service, Wilma Matysek toldl me that she understood herself to be placed exactly where God wants her to be in this time and place, and that in fact, through the good times and difficult times of her life, upon reflecting on it, she can see God’s hand throughout it all.  I asked if she would be willing to share her testimony with y’all, and she said yes.  So Wilma, please come up and tell the congregation some of the ways you have realized that God has been preparing you and placing you for God’s preferred future.  (Wilma’s story)

It’s so easy to live out our lives as well-connected, privileged people – because compared with much of the world, that is what we are, even if we don’t think of ourselves that way.  Virtually all of us have at least a high school degree, or equivalency degree.  Many of us have taken college or college-level courses.  We live in safe houses with running water, flush toilets, electricity, and heat.  We have drinkable water.  We have clothes – many more than one or two outfits.  We have access to healthy food, transportation, medical care.  We have people who care about us.  And how do we respond to all of this?  Too often we take it for granted, or we act as if it’s all for our sole benefit.  We aren’t mindful of the poor among us, the need among us, the folks who don’t have what we do.  We are inclined to think in terms of “I, Me, Mine,” the song by George Harrison on the Beatles’ Let It Be album.  Harrison was writing about the selfishness he saw within the band, but it’s a song that too often applies to us.   I don’t think our preferred future is about I, me, mine, though – and I am absolutely certain that we can never get to God’s preferred future for us without setting aside our focus on ourselves.  Our situations can change, just as Esther and Mordecai’s situations changed.  How has God prepared us, equipped us, now, so we can have the courage to face those changes?

Who knows why we are here, in this place, at this time?  God knows.  And, in our hearts, so do we.  Jesus told the people in His hometown why He came.  Luke 4: 16-19:  16When He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up, He went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was His custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to Him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  Good news to the poor:  affordable housing, safe places to live and learn, work that pays a living wage.  Release from the addictions that tempt us all, including the desire to control and dominate others.  The ability to see that we are all brothers and sisters in the Lord, important members of the Body of Christ.  To free us from racism and sexism and discrimination of all kinds.  To proclaim the good news of salvation – that Christ came into the world, not to condemn the world, but so that the world could be saved through Him, through His sacrifice once for all on the cross.  There is enough work in Jesus’ reading of Isaiah 58:6 and 61: 1 & 2 to keep all of the congregations around here very busy until Jesus comes again.

We are called to use our resources to further God’s kingdom on earth until Jesus returns.  May we be inspired and encouraged to do just that, so we too can reflect back on our lives and share our testimonies of how God has been active in our lives, working to position us for use in God’s preferred future.  Who knows?  God does – and so do we.  May we act on that knowledge, living and loving like Jesus, until He returns in glory.  And even so, come soon, Lord Jesus.  Amen.

May 1, 2016 Preparing for God’s Preferred Future

Esther 2  

Spring is a great time to think about the future.   Especially for those in school, the future and all it may hold, looms large, full of promise.  High school seniors are thinking about what they will do after they walk across the stage to receive their diploma and go – where? To work? To college? To technical school?  To boot camp?  What are their lives going to be like?  How are they going to be prepared for the future? For college seniors, it’s even more full of possibilities – and maybe worries.  Where will they get a job?  WILL they get a job?  What about graduate school?  When they close their eyes to imagine their preferred future, what does it look like?  For that matter, when we close OUR eyes, what does OUR preferred future look like?  What are OUR hopes, our aspirations, our dreams, our goals?  How do our experiences – the good ones and the ones we would prefer to not repeat – how do those things shape us, and prepare us, for our future?  And most important of all, for Christians, is this bigger question:  What does GOD’S preferred future look like?  How do we fit into that?  

The story of Esther is a story in which God allows human beings to work for good, or, by staying silent, to be complicit in allowing great evil to take place.  There are actually two different versions of the Book of Esther.  The original Hebrew text actually does not mention God at all, explicitly.  The Septuagint, the Greek translation done around 325 BCE of the Hebrew text, varies greatly from the Hebrew, by inserting several lengthy prayers by both Esther and her uncle, or cousin, Mordecai, which invoke God’s favor, guidance and protection.  The Hebrew text is clearly concerned with the choices people make.  That’s because GOD is clearly concerned with the choices people make.  But choices are never made in a vacuum.  Choices are determined by our histories.  Just as the choices we make at turning points in our lives, to attend school, to find work, to marry or not, to relocate or not, influence the choices we make further down the road, so with Esther and Mordecai.

In chapter one, the king of Persian has become very angry with his wife, Vashti.  He sends her away – to get the whole scandal-filled story you’ll have to read chapter one – and at the beginning of chapter two...  2Then the king’s servants who attended him said, “Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the king. 3And let the king appoint commissioners in all the provinces of his kingdom to gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem... [to] the king’s eunuch, who is in charge of the women; let their cosmetic treatments be given them. 4And let the girl who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.”   In short, there is a beauty contest – all the fair maidens were encouraged to come to court and be trained in what it takes to be a queen, with the hopes that one of them will be the new queen.  Think of The Bachelor, on steroids. And enter Esther and Mordecai.

Esther and Mordecai are Jews, living in Persia after the fall of Jerusalem.  Esther is an orphan; Mordecai has adopted her, and raises her up in the way he hopes for her to go.  She has been taught that family matters.  She has been taught to remember her roots – even if she does not speak openly about her heritage.  She and Mordecai are both immigrants, exiles.  Although they are accepted, there is no reason to draw attention to the fact that they are not ethnic Persians.  Esther has been taught good communication skills – she is easy to be around.   People like her.  She has been taught to seek good counsel – and when she hears it, she acts on good advice. So Esther also went to the palace; because she is beautiful and charming, she is befriended by the head of the harem, who gives her lots of good, practical advice.  And, 16When Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus in his royal palace .... 17the king loved Esther more than all the other women; of all the virgins she won his favor and devotion, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.  

Mordecai is now doubly-well connected.  Besides being related by marriage to the king, we also learn that although he is not a native Persian, he is trusted by the Persian officials.  In both verses 19 and 21, we learn that Mordecai “sat at the king’s gate.”  That doesn’t mean that Mordecai hung out there, loitering around.  That means that Mordecai was a trusted man who paid attention to who was coming in and going out, that he listened to what was going on around him, alert to any trouble that was brewing, or might be beginning to brew, in the main thoroughfares.  Some Jewish study bibles say that Mordecai was actually a member of the king’s secret police.  Certainly, if we read the entire book of Esther, we learn that Mordecai had an incredible amount of access to the king.  And  21In those days, while Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate...., two of the king’s eunuchs, who guarded the threshold, became angry and conspired to assassinate King Ahasuerus. 22But the matter came to the knowledge of Mordecai.  Mordecai, in his role as a member of the secret police, acted quickly to protect the king. Mordecai told it to Queen Esther, and Esther told the king in the name of Mordecai.  By entrusting Esther with this crucial information, Mordecai didn’t have to worry about any other possible conspirators blocking the warning.  The king acts on this information. The two men were arrested and executed.  At that time, Mordecai was not recognized in any way for his quick action in saving the king’s life.  Although it may have felt like a slight at the time, this too worked in Mordecai’s favor as the story continued to unfold.

In fact, God has positioned both of them to be the salvation of the Jews of Persia.  They don’t know that yet; it will take a bit more time for events to unfold, events in which they have to make tough choices, to act or not to act.  Their futures become tightly bound up in God’s preferred future for the Jewish exiles living in Persia.  But at this point they are just living out their lives, as well-connected, privileged people, seemingly safe and secure.  They are not thinking about God, or God’s preferred future at all.

Esther and Mordecai had made a good life – a great life – an incredible life – for themselves by working hard, by being reliable, teachable, honest, kind, all of those things we also strive for.  These things are good things.  But living incredible lives, by themselves, are not God’s preferred future.  God positions us, just as He positioned Esther and Mordecai, for God’s preferred future.  And in our hearts, we know this.  We are made for more than just ourselves.  We are made to make a difference in this place that God loves so very much, through what we do for those outside ourselves.

So what has God been positioning you, preparing you, for? What has God been positioning us, preparing us for?  What does God’s preferred future for us look like?   Think about what we have been given, and how God is positioning us for the unique task God has designed for us.  We will find out more about Esther and Mordecai’s unique task next Sunday.  For now, consider what God is preparing US for.  We can learn from Esther and Mordecai, when we look at the similarities between their situation and our own.  It starts with considering what God has already done to prepare us, as we move into God’s preferred future.  What has God been doing in your live, in our lives together?  As we come to this table, prepared for us with love by the Lord our God, consider God’s future for you, and for us.  May God open the eyes of our hearts, so we can see, hear, touch, smell and taste not only God’s presence here in this bread and in this juice but so we can also catch some glimpse of God’s preferred future, a future bright with hope, and promise.  Lord God, fill us with Your vision, and sustain us with Your promise, until Jesus returns again.  And even so, come soon, Lord Jesus.  Amen.

April 17, 2016 – Do Not Fear or Be Dismayed

2 Chronicles 20: 2-26 

So, what do we fear?  

 I looked at a number of different lists, by googling “Top Ten Things People Fear.”  This is my list, after looking for common factors.  Many of these are cross-cultural:  10. Commitment/intimacy.  9. Isolation.  8. Enclosed spaces.  7. Spiders, bugs, mice and rats.  6. The dark.  5. Rejection.  4. Failure.  3. Snakes.  2. Death.  1. Public speaking.

Sometimes, though, our fears become very immediate.  Jehoshaphat and the people of Judah became very fearful when they heard that a great multitude was coming against them, an army from Edom, from Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, who were assembling against them at En-gedi – an oasis south and west of Jerusalem, next to the Dead Sea, near Masada.  And 3Jehoshaphat was afraid; he set himself to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. 4Judah assembled to seek help from the LORD; from all the towns of Judah they came to seek the LORD.   Jehoshaphat spoke to the people, who assembled in front of the Temple, in Jerusalem.  He reminded God of their history as Chosen People, and the protection God had given to them as they made their way through the wilderness to the Promised Land.  [partway through v. 12]: For we are powerless against this great multitude that is coming against us.  We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on You.” 13Meanwhile all Judah stood before the LORD, with their little ones, their wives, and their children.

14Then the spirit of the LORD came upon Jahaziel son of Zechariah, son of Benaiah, son of Jeiel, son of Mattaniah, a Levite of the sons of Asaph, in the middle of the assembly. 15He said, “Listen, all Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, and King Jehoshaphat: Thus says the LORD to you: ‘Do not fear or be dismayed at this great multitude; for the battle is not yours but God’s. 16Tomorrow go down against them; they will come up by the ascent of Ziz; you will find them at the end of the valley, before the wilderness of Jeruel. 17This battle is not for you to fight; take your position, stand still, and see the victory of the LORD on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem.’ Do not fear or be dismayed; tomorrow go out against them, and the LORD will be with you.”   And the Levites assembled the Temple singers, to lead and encourage the people with SONG and HYMNS of PRAISE.  20They rose early in the morning and went out into the wilderness of Tekoa; and as they went out, Jehoshaphat stood and said, “Listen to me, O Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem! Believe in the LORD your God and you will be established; believe His prophets.”  And, 22As they began to sing and praise, the LORD set an ambush against the Ammonites, Moab, and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah, so that they were routed. 

Well.  With all due respect to Layton – I am not sure we would respond well to that kind of advice today. We like guns, and surveillance cameras, and body searches and concealed carry.  We like attack drones, character assassinations, and focusing on our differences instead of our similarities.  We like control.  We like power.  We like action. Physical action, duking it out, slugging it out, shooting it out.  Too often we forget that actually our battle is not with flesh and blood.  Instead, as Paul wrote to the Ephesians in 6:11:  11Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12For our* struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  This is not just mystical mumbo-jumbo here: Paul is talking about the real deal.  We ARE in a battle against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  Because we know how the battle ends doesn’t mean that the battle is over.  After all, World War II was effectively decided with the successful invasion of France on D-Day – but don’t ever tell a veteran of World War II that the war was over on June 6, 1944.  The Battle of the Bulge was horrendous – the war in Africa was too, and the war to take Italy.  And remember the war in the Pacific.  

So what are we supposed to do?  We could start where Jehoshaphat started: with prayer and fasting and seeking the will of the Lord.  We know what we are called to do: to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts and minds and souls and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Concerned about Waypointe?  Go knock on the doors and ask to talk with people there instead of listening to rumors and fear.  Concerned about the direction the township is moving in?  Attend council meetings.  Look at the candidates running, and talk directly with them about what their vision is for the community.  Concerned about violence here?  Think about how to present a future with hope to those who live here.  When people have a vision of hope, it is possible to work for that common goal.  Concerned about the future of this church?  Pray for guidance as to what God is calling us to do here in this place to serve now, in this time and place.  Concerned about the denomination?  Read the materials on the website.  Talk to our classis reps.  Come to a classis meeting – you can’t vote but you can be granted the privilege of the floor, and listen and ask questions.  Concerned about the future of America?  Maybe we need to start with the vision of how God calls us to be witnesses to God’s grace, love and mercy.  How do we care for the widows and orphans and – yes – refugees among us?  How do we need to shift our vision?  Too many times we think that life is a pie, our existence is a pie, and we have to fight one another to get our slice or two or five or ten.  But if our life is grounded in Jesus, we have to wake up to this fact: the metaphor is all wrong.  Jesus is not a pie.  Jesus is the light of the world.  When we light a candle from a candle, we do not diminish the light – instead, we spread the light, and diminish the darkness – remember, one of those things most humans fear the most!  Jesus, the light of the world, will bless us by arming us with the full armor of GOD, not of humans.  In this battle with this present darkness, we need not to fight fire with fire, but with love, the fierce, wild love of Jesus for this lost and broken world.

So what am I the most afraid of?  That when I stand in front of my Lord and Savior, that I will see disappointment instead of love in His eyes, because I have not done what I can, where I am, with what I have.  May I be able – may we ALL be able – to keep our eyes on the cross, and through the cross, to the Lord our God.  Remember Paul’s letter to the Romans 8: 37-39:  37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  And even so, come soon, Lord Jesus.  Amen.

April 10, 2016 – Telling the Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth, So Help Me, God

2 Chronicles 18: 3-34

Some game shows seem to last forever.  

The Price is Right.  Let’s Make a Deal.  And, To Tell the Truth.  I watched that show with my parents and sisters back in the late 50s and early sixties, watching host Bud Collyer and especially Peggy Cass and Kitty Carlisle, two of the very long-term panelists, grow older together.  The point of the show was figuring out who, out of three contestants all saying they were the same person, was telling the truth.  The actual person whose story was being told had to answer all questions honestly; the other two were supposed to do all they could to persuade the panelists, and the audience watching, that THEY were the person whose life was being talked about.  To Tell the Truth still pops up on television, both in reruns and in new iterations, because the premise is so fun: trying to tell who is telling us the truth, when two of them are being paid to be deceptive. 

Today’s story is about that core issue of telling the truth, even when others around us are not.  King Ahab – yes, THAT King, who also had significant conflict with Elijah, was pondering going to war against the Arameans, bringing along King Jehoshapat – the king of Judah – the Southern Kingdom, as help.  “3King Ahab of Israel said to King Jehoshaphat of Judah, ‘Will you go with me to Ramoth-gilead?’ He answered him, ‘I am with you, my people are your people. We will be with you in the war.’ 4 But Jehoshaphat also said to the king of Israel, ‘Inquire first for the word of the Lord.’ 5Then the king of Israel gathered the prophets together, four hundred of them, and said to them, ‘Shall we go to battle against Ramoth-gilead, or shall I refrain?’ They said, ‘Go up; for God will give it into the hand of the king.’ 6But Jehoshaphat said, ‘Is there no other prophet of the Lord here of whom we may inquire?’ 7The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, ‘There is still one other by whom we may inquire of the Lord, Micaiah son of Imlah; but I hate him, for he never prophesies anything favorable about me, but only disaster.’ Jehoshaphat said, ‘Let the king not say such a thing.’ 8Then the king of Israel summoned an officer and said, ‘Bring quickly Micaiah son of Imlah.’”   

Micaiah has a reputation as telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth – and as we might be able to predict from Ahab’s words, and from what we also know of Ahab’s rule from scripture, Ahab might have been considered to be wise in the way of the world – the House of Omri was held in high regard by the surrounding kingdoms – but the prophets, the true prophets in Israel, did not think much of him.  Ahab did not appreciate those true prophets.  Remember his behavior toward Elijah – and so the messenger who went to get him tried to coach Micaiah about what to say.  You know, go along to get along.  That’s not what happened.   Micaiah’s response to the messenger was this:  13But Micaiah said, ‘As the LORD lives, whatever my God says, that I will speak.’  14 When he had come to the king, the king said to him, ‘Micaiah, shall we go to Ramoth-gilead to battle, or shall I refrain?’ He answered, ‘Go up and triumph; they will be given into your hand.’ 15But the king said to him, ‘How many times must I make you swear to tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the LORD?’ 16Then Micaiah said, ‘I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep without a shepherd; and the LORD said, “These have no master; let each one go home in peace.” ’ 17The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, ‘Did I not tell you that he would not prophesy anything favorable about me, but only disaster?’  18 Then Micaiah said, ‘Therefore hear the word of the LORD: I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, with all the host of heaven standing to the right and to the left of him. 19And the LORD said, “Who will entice King Ahab of Israel, so that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?” Then one said one thing, and another said another, 20until a spirit came forward and stood before the LORD, saying, “I will entice him.” The LORD asked him, “How?” 21He replied, “I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.” Then the LORD said, “You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do it.” 22So you see, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of these your prophets; the LORD has decreed disaster for you.’

Ahab had Micaiah imprisoned and put on reduced rations of bread and water, until the kings returned.  Then off they went, Ahab and Jehoshaphat and their armies.  But Ahab made a tactical decision: 29The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, ‘I will disguise myself and go into battle, but you wear your robes.’ So the king of Israel disguised himself, and they went into battle. 30Now the king of Aram had commanded the captains of his chariots, ‘Fight with no one small or great, but only with the king of Israel.’ 31When the captains of the chariots saw Jehoshaphat, they said, ‘It is the king of Israel.’ So they turned to fight against him; and Jehoshaphat cried out, and the LORD helped him. God drew them away from him, 32for when the captains of the chariots saw that it was not the king of Israel, they turned back from pursuing him. 33But a certain man drew his bow and unknowingly struck the king of Israel between the scale armor and the breastplate; so he said to the driver of his chariot, ‘Turn around, and carry me out of the battle, for I am wounded.’ 34The battle grew hot that day, and the king of Israel propped himself up in his chariot facing the Arameans until evening; then at sunset he died.  He died, just as Elijah had prophesized, and when they washed down Ahab’s bloody chariot, just as Elijah had predicted, the dogs in the courtyard lapped up Ahab’s blood.

Micaiah and Elijah both told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth in more stringent ways than we are likely to ever be called to do.  And yet, we too ARE called to tell the truth, as Christians, and especially when it comes to following the will of God.  How do we do this?  Through prayer, and with love.  Paul said this to the Philippians in chapter 1:  3I thank my God every time I remember you, 4constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.  7It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.  9And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Paul says that we can be confident of God’s faithfulness, as the good works God has begun through us will come to completion.  Paul says he knows they hold him in their hearts – they pray for him.  Paul says they are all in this together: he may be the one in prison, but they also share in God’s grace, doing what they can, where they are, with what they have.  And Paul’s prayer for them is that they can grow in love, out of which will come knowledge and full insight, so they can discern God’s will.

This is what our brothers and sisters are doing in Turkey, and throughout the world.  They behave with faithfulness and in truth, looking not to please the people who live around them, but to be faithful to God’s calling.  They work quietly, persistently, faithfully, using what they have, where they are, with what they have, trusting that God will send them the resources: the people, the “stuff,” and the funds they need to continue to serve as God’s hands and feet.  The first thing every pastor told me they needed, when I asked how we could help, was this: they need laborers, since the field is white with harvest.  They need people who are willing to come for two weeks or three months, since that is the length of time for a tourist visa, to help – to be the very presence of Christ.  They need our prayers.  They need our encouragement.  They need us to tell their stories.  They need us to bear witness, here, in this safe and often insular place, where we worry more about the latest and greatest whatever, while they go to worship protected, on Easter Sunday, by armor plated vehicles and soldiers armed with submachine guns, outside the Dutch Chapel, housed in the embassy of the Netherlands, in Istanbul.  They need us to act as conduits for God’s supplying of their material needs, showing God’s faithfulness as messengers of God.  They need for us to hold them in our hearts – to pray for those on the front lines of the proclamation of the gospel.  They need for us to remember and act on the knowledge that we are all in this together: they may be the ones serving in far-off places, but that we also share in God’s grace, doing what we can, where we are, with what we have.  They need for us to grow in love, out of which will come knowledge and full insight, so we can discern God’s will.  We already know God’s overarching will: to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts, minds, souls and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  That involves telling the truth about God’s love for the world, made manifest above all in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension.  

It’s both simple to say, and tough to do.  But may we set that as our goal, as we work together doing that which is pleasing to God, in truth, with love and grace, until Jesus returns in glory.  And even so, come soon, Lord Jesus.  Amen. 

March 27, 2016 – Perplexed and Amazed

1 Corinthians 15: 12-22

Luke 24: 1-12

Sometimes our expectations can be thoroughly confounded.  Sometimes the mismatch between what we anticipate and what we actually encounter can rock our worlds.  Certainly that is what happened on that long ago early spring morning after the last Pesach, or Passover, that Jesus shared with His followers.  You remember what occurred.  Jesus had celebrated Passover, been betrayed, arrested, borne the mockery of a trial.  Jesus had been bounced between Pilate and Herod, both of whom were not inclined to pass judgment, even as Herod in particular also mocked Him.  But Pilate was where the buck stopped.  He made the final decision to release Barabbas, following his custom and the cries of the crowd.  Pilate ordered that Jesus be flogged, and then crucified.   The Roman centurion followed orders, and so Jesus was crucified, endured more mockery, and died.  Joseph of Arimathea  claimed Jesus’ body, and wrapped it in a linen shroud.  But there was not much time to otherwise prepare Jesus’ body, because the Sabbath was coming on.  The women who had accompanied Jesus, who had provided for Him and for His followers, women like Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them, who had witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion and death, those women paid attention to what was going on.  55The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. 56Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.  But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the Body. While they were perplexed about this....  

Perplexed is a great way to describe their feelings.  They were surprised, confused.  They were filled with uncertainty – they had expected to care for Jesus’ dead body as a last sign of respect and love – but there WAS no body.  This is a difficult, bizarre situation.  What has happened???  And while they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground...  They have this amazing encounter with two men – who tell them that Jesus is, in fact, alive.  The two men remind them of Jesus’ own words – and since their expectations have been so thoroughly uprooted, they are now open to understanding, and believing, Jesus.  They are transformed from being perplexed to being messengers – the Greek word Ανγγελοσ ισ clearly embedded in it – the word we transliterate as ANGEL.   They run, and they report.  That is their task – and they fulfill it.  But even though these men, these disciples knew these women, had been provided for by these women, their witness was scoffed at.  Peter at least went and looked – but while he went home amazed, he was not transformed into a messenger – not yet.  

The foundational understanding of Easter is based on this conundrum of being perplexed, and amazed.  Paul summarizes this conundrum: if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.   OUR faith has been in vain, if in fact that tomb was empty because someone stole Jesus’ body, hid it away somewhere in secret.  

I do not even want to develop the absurdity of that argument, except to note that Jesus’ dead body would have been extremely valuable because it would have been the one thing that could have ended the rumors of His resurrection.  The recent movie Risen does a great job of showing just how much the Romans and the Jewish leaders both wanted to find that Body.  But there WAS no Body.  Not a dead one, anyway – a resurrected Body, a resurrected Jesus, who now does indeed sit at the right hand of the Father.  That fact continues to perplex and amaze us today.

The task has come down through the ages – go, report, tell, proclaim – be messengers – be ANGELS to this lost and broken world that needs this perplexing truth, this upsetting of our reality so we can be open to amazement, to being transformed by God’s reality.  God’s reality is about love, about forgiveness, about redemption and salvation.  It calls us to confess, to resolve to try again, to lean into God’s leaning, to forgive as we have been forgiven, to redeem others by caring for them: feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison – both jails and the psychological prisons that restrain people.  As we live into God’s grace with gratitude and love, we too will be transformed, just as those women, and later, the rest of Jesus’ followers, into Ανγγελοσ.  The kingdom of God will continue its inbreaking, until at last Jesus comes again in glory.  And even so, come soon, Lord Jesus.  Remember – He IS risen!  He is risen indeed!!  Amen.

March 6, 2016: Opened Eyes

2 Kings 6: 8-23

One popular storytelling genre is war/espionage stories.  Spies, the idea of using our wits to help the good guys defeat the bad guys, intrigue us.  There are 24 James Bond films, for example.  Adjusted for inflation, that film series is the highest grossing series of all time.  The first was made in 1962, and starred a young Scottish actor named Sean Connery, in what became his breakout role.  One key to this genre is the understood need for secrecy.  In film and especially in real life, a key to success is not letting the other side know what our plans are.  That is what propels the action in today’s story of the on-going conflict between the kingdoms of Aram and Israel. 

 8Once when the king of Aram was at war with Israel, he took counsel with his officers. He said, “At such and such a place shall be my camp.” 9But the man of God [Elisha] sent word to the king of Israel, “Take care not to pass this place, because the Arameans are going down there.”   The king of Aram, who has laid his plans carefully, gets frustrated when, in spite of the secrecy surrounding his plans, the Israelites remain one step ahead of him.  How is this possible?  Is there a spy?  No, one of his officers says; rather, is Elisha, the prophet in Israel, who tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedchamber.”  13He said, “Go and find where he is; I will send and seize him.”   The Aramean spies advance party come back with a report, and the action picks up.  The king of Aram sends 14.... horses and chariots there and a great army; they came by night, and surrounded the city. 15When an attendant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. His servant said, “Alas, master! What shall we do?” 16He replied, “Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.” 17Then Elisha prayed: “O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the LORD opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. 18When the Arameans came down against him, Elisha prayed to the LORD, and said, “Strike this people, please, with blindness.” So He struck them with blindness as Elisha had asked. 19Elisha said to them, “This is not the way, and this is not the city; follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.” And he led them to Samaria. 20As soon as they entered Samaria, Elisha said, “O LORD, open the eyes of these men so that they may see.” The LORD opened their eyes, and they saw that they were inside Samaria.  21When the king of Israel saw them he said to Elisha, “Father, shall I kill them? Shall I kill them?” 22He answered, “No! Did you capture with your sword and your bow those whom you want to kill? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink; and let them go to their master.” 23So he prepared for them a great feast; after they ate and drank, he sent them on their way, and they went to their master. And the Arameans no longer came raiding into the land of Israel.  

God opens the eyes of the Israelites, so they will not be afraid, as God reveals the source of their protection.  God then temporarily closes the eyes of the threatening enemy, only to reveal to them grace and mercy: Elisha leads them into Samaria, the Northern Kingdom, Israel and there, where they are entirely at the mercy of the Israelites, with the King of Israel champing at the bit to slaughter this enemy, Elisha reveals that grace and mercy:  “No! Did you capture with your sword and your bow those whom you want to kill? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink; and let them go to their master.” Who is responsible for the Arameans’ blindness?  How did they fall under the control of the Israelites?  It wasn’t because of the Israelites’ might, their weapons, their prowess.  It was all because of God first reassuring those with Elisha by opening their eyes, then God closing the eyes of their enemies, and then opening those enemies’ eyes to reveal their vulnerability to the Israelites.  The Israelites follow Elisha’s command to show grace and mercy.  23So he prepared for them a great feast; after they ate and drank, he sent them on their way, and they went to their master.  What happens?  And the Arameans no longer came raiding into the land of Israel.

Elisha redirected the Israelites as he also reminded them from where THEIR help comes.  Where might that be?  The same place where our help still comes from today.  Psalm 121  I lift up my eyes to the hills.   From whence does my help come?  My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.  He will not let your foot be moved, He who keeps you will not slumber.  Behold, He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.  The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand.  The sun shall not smite you by day, nor the moon by night.  The LORD will keep you from all evil; He will keep your life.  The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.

Opening our eyes, really opening our eyes, is hard.  When people tell me to open my eyes, they usually mean that I am being naive, and that I need to get a dose of reality.  Grace and mercy?  Really?  Sounds good in practice, pastor, but it’s not real life.  Real life is about protecting what is mine, getting my share, coming out on top.  It’s about NOT taking prisoners.  It’s about eliminating prisoners.  It’s a dog-eat-dog.  Better to be the first one to strike.  Better to turn those “not like us” into “others” – “others” who, if they fall into our control, should be kept out, kept away, or eliminated for the good of the community, the nation.  Right?  But especially in this time of Lent, we remember who uttered sentiment about the good of the nation:  John 11: 49-52:  49But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! 50You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” 51He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, 52and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God.  Using the rationale of those who put the Son of God to death does not seem like a good idea to me.  The wisdom of the world is not always what God calls us to live into.  It is precisely because we have opened eyes that we are supposed to extend grace and mercy.

Johnny Nash, who was one of the first non-Jamaican songwriters to record reggae music, wrote a song back in 1972, “I Can See Clearly Now,” that has been playing in my internal play list all week.  Way back in 1972, it was #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100.  It is not overtly Christian, just as most reggae music is not overtly Christian, and yet it sums up our attitude of how we are to live our lives.

I can see clearly now, the rain is gone,
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It's gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright) Sun-Shiny day.

I think I can make it now, the pain is gone
All of the bad feelings have disappeared
Here is the rainbow I've been prayin for
It's gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright) Sun-Shiny day.

Look all around, there's nothin but blue skies
Look straight ahead, nothin but blue skies

I can see clearly now, the rain is gone,
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It's gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright) Sun-Shiny day.

We CAN see all obstacles in our way precisely BECAUSE God has opened our eyes.  When we release our expectations, our desire to kill our enemies, either by inflicting spiritual and psychological harm through slander, lies, hatred, or by inflicting physical harm, our pain and bad feelings can disappear.  As we come to this table, may we remember that we are called to follow Jesus, the One who came not to judge and condemn, but to redeem and save.  May we remember that we are called to live and love like Jesus, as we continue to do that which is pleasing to Him, until He returns in glory.  And even so, come soon, Lord Jesus.  Amen

February 28, 2016: Obedience

Last week was Scout Sunday.  We got to celebrate being the charter organization for both Cub Scout Pack 1980 and Boy Scout Troop 1980, and also celebrate the way we support the local Girl Scouts through their local council, the Girl Scouts Heart of New Jersey by serving as a training and meeting center for the council and also serving as a meeting place for some of the local troops.  As part of that, the Scouts helped us remember both the grounding for what Scouting is in scripture, which some of our Girl Scouts read, and the twelve parts of the Scout Law, which some of our Boy Scouts and Scouts from the pack recited in response.  The seventh part of the law has to do with obedience.  This is what the law says:  A Scout is OBEDIENT: A Scout follows the rules of his family, school, and pack. He obeys the laws of his community and country.  Obedience.  An important idea.

Obey is a powerful verb – it is a strong action word.  It implies hearing, understanding, and doing.  Two descriptors, obedience, and obedient, grow right out of the action of following, of doing, or of NOT following, not doing – which is where DISobey, DISobedience and DISobedient come from.  When we are expected to obey, we have two possible behavioral responses: to do, or to do not.  That is some of what today’s reading is about.

Naaman is strong, powerful, respected, successful – and also afflicted.  His social contact with others was necessarily afflicted by the skin disease that is translated “leprosy.”  The key here is not the actual disease, as we understand it now, that he suffered from – it is that he was socially isolated even as he was also strong, powerful, respected and successful.  What to do??  When he hears, through a slave girl, an Israelite captive who serves his wife, that there may be hope in Israel,he asks for, and receives, support from the king of Aram to go and see.  The king of Aram sends him to the king of Israel – but the king of Israel was not the prophet the slave girl had in mind.  So there is a course correction, and Naaman is sent to Elisha, the prophet who followed Elijah.  Elisha merely sends out a messenger, who tells Naaman to go and bathe in the Jordan, seven times.  Naaman was enraged by all that happened:  he’s strong! He’s powerful! He’s respected! He’s successful!  Why isn’t Elisha coming out and honoring all of that!?!  And what is the Jordan compared with the waters of HIS hometown!?!  His servants refocus him: why are they there, again?  Why refuse such a simple order?  Why NOT obey?  What have you got to lose, Naaman?  (Well, pride and pridefulness loom large here.  Also hope – coming to Elisha was a desperate measure.)  So, probably grumbling and complaining under his breath he follows Elisha’s instructions – and is healed, probably again way beyond all of his expectations and desperate hopes.  And the Lord God of Israel gains a powerful, obedient follower.  That’s why he asks permission to bring back two wagonloads of dirt – because in that time and place having some of that particular soil was key in being able to offer right worship.  The Lord God gained a powerful, OBEDIENT follower, when Naaman decided to obey the man of God.

Obedience matters to God.  In scripture, there are 299 references to the word obey, obedience and obedient – which also includes the references to DISobey, DISobedience and DISobedient.  Time and again the people promise to do what God says.  One of the first references comes from Exodus 24:7:  All the Lord has spoken [after the giving of the Ten Commandments] we will do, and we will be obedient.   We know how THAT worked out.  The role of the judges and the prophets was to call the people back to obedience – and we know how THAT worked out as well.  So in the fullness of time the Word became incarnate, became flesh – for US and for OUR salvation.  Yet, when even the wind and the seas obeyed Jesus, as told in Matthew 8:27, Mark 4:14, and Luke 8:25, when even evil spirits obeyed Jesus and came out, as told in Mark 1:27, we are shocked.  The wind, the rain, evil spirits – they obey Jesus.  What about us?

Obedience is hard.  Obedience means we have to sacrifice OUR way of being, doing, following, leading to instead follow Jesus’ way of being, doing, following.  We have to be willing to accept grace.  Naaman did that.  He accepted grace, and because of Elisha’s generous response, because Elisha refused to accept any kind of payment for the healing Naaman had received, Naaman learned another valuable response – go, and do likewise – extend grace, and the message of God’s grace, to others.  That public act of ongoing worship Naaman proposed was part of that – a testimony of God’s ongoing grace, a grace that was not bought by wealth and precious clothes and jewerly, but a grace that was freely given to all who would set aside their expectations and be obedient.

Obedience is hard, because our obedience is often framed with expectations: if you do this for me, I’ll do that for you.  God doesn’t work like that.  This old poem, “I Asked GOD,” attributed to an unknown soldier, shows us the fallacy of expecting tit-for-tat from God:

I asked for strength, that I might achieve;
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey... 
I asked for health, that I might do greater things; 
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things…
I asked for riches, that I might be 
I was given poverty, that I might be wise;
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men;
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God... 
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life;
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things…
I got nothing that I asked for- but everything I had hoped for; 
Almost despite myself, My unspoken prayers were answered.
I am among all men most richly blessed. 

May we too learn humbly to obey, continuing to do the things Jesus reminded us to do in Matthew 25: feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison – both jails and the psychological prisons that restrain people.  May we be as obedient as Naaman, until Jesus returns in glory.  And even so, come soon, Lord Jesus!  Amen.

February 14, 2016: The Courage to Confront

Confronting a problem, facing it head on, acknowledging the elephant in the room, takes courage.  Confronting something with something often leads to conflict, and most of us are not good with conflict.  But if we encounter something that threatens to harm someone or something that we care about, most of us will eventually confront what, or who, we think the source of the conflict is, with the hope of trying to do something about it, or at least trying to hold those we consider responsible for the conflict accountable for their behavior, or lack of behavior.

Elijah, who pops up on the scene in 1 Kings 17, has his first confrontation with the king, Ahab, shortly after Ahab begins to reign over Israel, following his father, Omri.  A little history, so this makes some sense.  The Davidic Kingdom had split after Solomon’s death; Jeroboam became king over the Northern Kingdom, also known as Israel, in 931 BCE.  Rehoboam ruled over the Southern Kingdom, also known as Judah.  Jeroboam was king over the Northern Kingdom for 22 years, and was succeeded by his son, Nadab, who was deposed and killed, along with the entire line of his father’s family, 2 years later, by Baasha.  He was king for 24 years; when he died he was succeeded by HIS son Elah.  Elah was king for two years before he was assassinated by one of his officials, Zimri, who was king for seven days.  Zimri committed suicide when he realized that the army was supporting another commander, Omri.  Omri was king for 12 years, and when he died he was succeeded by Ahab in 875 BCE.  Why all that detail?  It’s important to note both the turmoil and turnover that the Northern Kingdom went through – seven kings, four dynasties, in 66 years.  It wasn’t for nothing that Omri followed conventional wisdom and married off his heir, Ahab, to a Phoenician princess, Jezebel.  And it wasn’t for nothing that Ahab had temples built to the Phoenician god, Baal, for Jezebel.  After all, Solomon, the “wisest man who ever lived” had done the same.  For a couple of centuries the northern kingdom was actually known as the “Land of Omri.”  Conventional wisdom supported everything that Ahab was doing – the conventional wisdom of the wider world, that is.  But the conventional wisdom of the world is, very often, in opposition to what God would have us do.

So God sends Elijah to confront Ahab back in 1 Kings 17 – and tells Ahab there will be no rain until Elijah says – and what Elijah says is determined by what God tells him.  After 3 ½ years of no rain, things are getting pretty bad in Israel.  After many days the word of the LORD came to Elijah, in the third year of the drought, saying, “Go, present yourself to Ahab; I will send rain on the earth.” 2So Elijah went to present himself to Ahab. The famine was severe in Samaria. 3Ahab summoned Obadiah, who was in charge of the palace. (Now Obadiah revered the LORD greatly; 4when Jezebel was killing off the prophets of the LORD, Obadiah took a hundred prophets, hid them fifty to a cave, and provided them with bread and water.)   Ahab has been searching desperately for Elijah.  Ahab holds the messenger, Elijah, responsible for the message from God – so Ahab wants to get his hands on Elijah and force him to lift the drought.  Elijah encounters Obadiah first, and tells Obadiah to return to Ahab and tell him where to meet Elijah.  16So Obadiah went to meet Ahab, and told him; and Ahab went to meet Elijah.

17When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” 18He answered, “I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the LORD and followed the Baals. 19Now therefore have all Israel assemble for me at Mount Carmel, with the four hundred fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.” 20So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel.

Elijah arranges for a confrontation: the 450 prophets of Baal against him, only him, who he presents as being the only prophet of the Lord.  They will offer a bull as a sacrifice on an altar, prepared with wood laid all around, and pray to their respective gods – Baal for the 450, the LORD God of Israel for Elijah, but neither group will light the wood for the sacrifice themselves.  As Elijah says, 24Then 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.  Everyone agrees, and the confrontation begins.  There is, of course, no answer from Baal.  At last, after hours of the 450 calling out to Baal, egged on by some mocking from Elijah, they give up, and Elijah takes his turn.  But first he has them pour water abundantly over the wood and the bull that has been prepared.  Not only will this force things, but it also takes away the final argument the people who support Baal can make; they believed that water was a gift from Baal.  So maybe, even though Baal didn’t act to light the wood on fire, maybe Baal would use water to prevent the fire from consuming the offer made to the Lord.  We all know what happens next: 38Then 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. 39When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The LORD indeed is God; the LORD indeed is God.” 40Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.” Then they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there.

Next comes the blessed sound of rushing rain.  At first only Elijah can hear it – but a cloud comes, visible from the top of Mount Carmel, where this confrontation occurs, and Elijah warns Ahab to get off the mountain and back to Jezreel before the rain bogs down the parched earth into mud, while Elijah runs ahead of Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel itself.  The drought is over.  The confrontation shows who is more powerful, who is in control over all of Creation – the Lord God, maker of heaven and earth.  For this short time the people remember:  “The LORD indeed is God; the LORD indeed is God.”

It is so easy to get seduced by the ways of the world.  It is so easy to get distracted by the advice of those who do NOT follow the Lord God, who do not follow God’s only begotten Son, Jesus.  Yet, I have some good news about this – not all confrontations have to be in-your-face.  The most difficult confrontation we have is within ourselves, between what our heads tell us to do, and what our hearts, led by the Holy Spirit, tell us to do.  

What did Jesus tell us to do?  In the Gospel of Matthew, as part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, starting at 5:43:  “You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,* what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”   Be perfect.  A tall order.  But a goal we can all strive for.  When we confront our own behavior, that is in-our-hearts, not in-your-face.  That’s still hard, though.  How do we get there? 

By prayer.  By praying.  Some folks tend to scoff at the power of prayer.  That’s all we can do?  Pray? They scoff because they miss the concrete action that flows out of prayer, if we are listening to what God would have us do.  So let me tell you a true story about “that’s all we can do,” which comes from a B-52 website story, with some correction: the author of this piece is Elmer Bendiner, a navigator of a B-17 Flying Fortress, in World War II.  He received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters, and the Purple Heart for his service.  This story is about one particular run, a bombing run over Kassel, Germany; he describes it in his book The Fall of Fortresses:.

Our B-17, the Tondelayo, was barraged by flak from Nazi anti-aircraft guns. That was not unusual, but on this particular occasion our gas tanks were hit. 

Later, as I reflected on the miracle of a 20-mm shell piercing a fuel tank without causing an explosion, our pilot told me it was not quite that simple. On the morning following the raid, Bohn asked our crew chief for that shell as a 'souvenir' of our unbelievable luck. The crew chief told Bohn that not just one shell had been found in our fuel tanks, but eleven!

Eleven unexploded shells, where only one would've been sufficient to blast us out of the sky!  The shells were sent to the armorers to be de-fused. The armorers told Intelligence why: When the armorers opened those shells, they found NO explosive charge! Empty? Not quite. One contained a carefully-rolled piece of paper with a scrawl in Czech.

Intelligence translated it. The note read: "This is all we can do for you now."

That might have been “all they could do” – and it was way more than sufficient!  If the Czechs who were being forced to produce that armament had been caught, they would of course have been killed.  Had they followed conventional wisdom, they would have been packing that ordnance with explosive charges.  They upended conventional wisdom by confronting evil in the only way they could – by leaving them empty.  That was more than sufficient!!  Who knows how many other Allied Force planes were not shot down because of those empty shells?

Elijah confronted the evil that Ahab was doing because that is what God called him to do.  God will not tell most of us to get to that level of confrontation of authorities.  Jesus knows that it’s enough to confront our hearts, our own inner struggles between the things God calls us to do, and the things the world tells us we should do if we want to be successful, powerful, in control, acceptable to others – pick your adjective.  What God wants us to do is to be in relationship with Him, through the grace and mercy of the Holy Spirit.  When we have courage to confront our own mis-steps, our own failures, we become more like Jesus, and as a group we become more like the Body of Christ that Jesus would have us be.  May we have the courage, and the will, to listen to what the Lord our God would have us do, and then to do it, even and especially when it looks like“all we can do,” until Jesus returns in glory.  And even so, come soon, Lord Jesus.  Amen.

Link to Passage: 1 Kings 18

© Readington Reformed Church  2015