Monday, June 24, 2013

Remembering Alban . . .

     Am I really THAT important in His plan?  Does my service really make that big of a difference?  I’m only one person . . . --Statements and questions such as these pop up from time to time in ministry.  Sometimes, as we engage in ministries which are long running or have no real expectation of victory, Christians can get bogged down on the outcome of their efforts.  For example, ever feel exasperated at serving the Community Meal month after month year after year?  Ever think we are wasting our times trying to help families stretch their grocery dollars or food stamps?  Ever get tired of collecting food for the food bank?  All are natural victims to outcome thinking.  Have we really made a dent in hunger in our community?  Ever wonder what business we have taking on a multibillion dollar shadowy industry?  After all, we are fighting it with barely a six figure budget.  Ever wonder why we work hard trying to help those in our community who minister to battered women and their children in Christ’s name?  Have we really made a dent in the amount of spouse abuse in our community?  Those kinds of frustrations are natural for human beings and for churches.  We like to see an outcome from our efforts.  We like to know we are making a difference.  Fortunately for each one of us gathered here this week, we remember a saint whose service is etched in our collective DNA.  Yes, it is that time of the year when we remember our patron, Alban, and the ministry for which he is known.

     I was laughing earlier this week with the ladies from Thursday morning and from teasing a certain Welsh parishioner.  We had only the lives of three saints to discuss last week.  Naturally, our interest gravitated more to the life and death of Alban.  One lady asked why we had chosen Alban.  Alban is not the most famous of saints.  Iowa may have two churches that bear his name, but there does not seem to be many in the United States.  Jan Chapman said he had been chosen by a vote of the parishioners.  Apparently, in the beginning, we entertained David and Alban as patrons.  I joked, as is my wont, that it must not have been a big battle.  After all, who around here would choose the patron saint of vegetarians as our own namesake?  That bit, as you might have imagined, provoked a bit of a response among those closely tied to Wales.

     All kidding aside, our forefathers and foremothers made an interesting choice.  For those of you new to this community and unaware of Alban’s claim to fame, I will be brief.  Alban was a Roman soldier serving in England.  It used to be accepted that this occurred around the early 300‘s AD, but now scholarship seems to be pointing to a century before, under the persecutions of Septimius Severus a century before.  An itinerant priest fleeing from persecution found his way into our namesake’s tent.  The soldier, upon hearing the Gospel from the priest, converted to Christianity.  The new convert then changed clothes with the priest and sent the priest on his way, hoping to preserve his life.  The soldier was arrested, tortured, and eventually killed.  The cathedral of St. Alban’s in England, is built on the site where the new convert was executed for his faith.

     The story of his martyrdom was apparently etched into the collective of the local population.  As a Roman soldier, our patron had the power of the state on his side.  Something, however, grabbed him to the point that he was willing to give up that life.  People turned out in droves to witness the execution.  So many came, allegedly, that the soldiers and Alban could not make their way across the bridge over the river Ver to the site of the execution.  Alban had to pray to God to stop the waters of the Ver, which He did, so that they could cross over on dry ground.  Alban also prayed that he might be given water to to wash himself before meeting God.  God answered that prayer by causing a spring to bubble to the surface where Alban could wash.  The story goes that the execution was so moved by these miracles that he refused to chop the head off the former soldier.  The second executioner, presumably the first’s assistant, did the deed and, depending on which version you accept, either had his eyes pop out of his head and died or had his heart stop beating in his chest and died the very moment the axe touched the neck our beloved patron.

     If we had written this story, we likely would have not allowed Alban to die.  Had we written this story, perhaps we would have given Alban the opportunity to preach the Gospel to his commanders and bring a legion or governor into a right relationship with God through Christ, mirroring what happened to him thanks to that priest.  Unfortunately, we don’t write the story.  And fortunately for Alban, our Lord does, and He can redeem all things, even death itself!  Why do I remind us of that?  If you are new to St. Alban’s, you might think the priest got away.  He didn’t.  He apparently returned upon hearing of Alban’s capture and was summarily executed.  The first execution, you know--the one who recognized God at work in the life of Alban, was also killed for refusing to put Alban to death.  Three senseless deaths.  Three quick senseless deaths.  How could the life of the priest and the new convert ever make a difference?

     Both, of course, served God faithfully.  The priest apparently travelled and shared the Gospel with any who would listen, even Roman soldiers he stumbled upon while fleeing authorities, knowing that to do so was to court death.  The easy thing to do would be to take off the priestly attire and blend in by not sharing the Gospel.  But, thankfully for us, the priest was faithfully obedient.  Alban, too, chose to be faithfully obedient.  How easy would it have been to pretend that the priest stole his clothes or knocked him out and switched clothes?  Or, upon questioning, how easy would it have been to deny Christ and pinch the incense at the altar in honor of the Roman gods?  After all, Alban had not know Christ for very long, had he?  Why the extreme behavior?  Both simply obeyed faithfully what God called them to do, and they trusted that God would give meaning to their ministry.

     We often pray that God can do more than we ever ask or imagine.  The ministry of our patron certainly bears witness to that truth in our own lives.  The state won.  Their lives were snuffed out, by all accounts, rather quickly.  And yet, the sight of a Roman soldier laying down his life for Christ, made a lasting impression on the local village.  People not only turned out to witness Alban’s martyrdom, they remembered it!  Tertullian, an early Church bishop who likely preceded our patron by a few decades, once wrote that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.  What he meant was later experienced by those who came to Britain at the instruction of the Pope.  In the late 6th century, word reached Rome that English pagans would convert in great numbers if enough priests could be found to instruct them properly.  What helped Christianity stay alive in the minds of the general public?  Among them was the witness of our beloved saint.

      Brothers and sisters, as I noted earlier, it is normal to want to know that our work makes a difference.  Who does not like to see results?  But the conversion and death of our saint reminds us that we cannot give meaning nor results to our work.  Only God can give results; He is the One who appoints meaning.  Since our meeting with the bishop’s staff last month, I have been reflecting on the ministries of the parish.  There are, as they noted, a lot of interesting corporate ministries happening in our midst.  As I have spent time reflecting, however, I realize that a large number of you have some amazing individual ministries at work among those whom we serve.  One goes to a prison where the supply of prisoners never dwindles.  Another serves those who are dying or near death by reminding those suffering of the promises of our Lord.  Several among us have vibrant prayer lives.  They don’t just go through the motions of praying, they do so determinedly expecting an answer from God!  One of us has the gift of hospitality, of doing those odd jobs that makes our gatherings more pleasant.  Nine of us (10 counting Maralyn) each year volunteer time and energy discerning God’s will for this parish.  One of us has taken on the cause of immigrants and refugees in a manner that honors our patron, who is the patron of refugees and immigrants.  Several of us volunteer time to help care for people in our lives, either through companionship or performing odd jobs or even the preparation of meals.  Some of us have been called to be advocates, in one way or another, speaking of the needs of those on the margins in this community, reminding ourselves and the community around us that foreclosures, or unemployment, or bullying, or whatever are not just numbers.  They are lives, lives redeemed by our Lord at cost of His body and His blood.

     In the face of such intense personal ministries, and the corporate ministries which we as a parish have adopted, it is sometimes easy to feel as if our work amounts to nothing, as if we are living the life of Sisyphus rolling his boulder to no significant end.  You and I like have a particular response in mind when we begin any ministry.  But you and I are reminded, both in the readings assigned for his day and in the life and martyrdom of our saint, that it is our Lord who assigns significance and it is our Lord who cultivates the results.  All we can do is serve where He calls us to serve, trusting that He does nothing without purpose.  We may act on His authority and with His blessing, but only He has the power to redeem all things.  That knowledge ought to inspire us!  That knowledge ought to free us!  If we are not responsible for anything other than faithful effort, then we are never failures when we act in His name to the glory of Christ.  Never.  The same Lord, who took an itinerant priest, a soldier’s conversion, and a couple martyr’s deaths and inscribed them on the hearts of those who witnessed the events is the same Lord who calls you to serve Him.  And just as He was faithful to Alban, so He will be to you and to me.  All we must do is faithfully perform those tasks He has given us to do.  The rest is up to Him.

     Brothers and sisters, you are each called to a community of faith which remembers the witness of Alban some 18 centuries later, this despite edicts and persecutions and any number of world events which threatened the spread of our faith in the Empire and in the time surrounding its collapse.  The same God who saw the Church through that difficult period will see you through yours.  When you wonder if it is worth it, when you wonder whether your effort truly makes any difference, think on Alban who remembered that he and that priest and all who would come after, were of inestimable value to the One who first gave up His life at the hands of Romans who measured their successes by military victories and accumulated wealth, those same Romans who are now extinct and a memory while His bride, the Church, you, continues about His will.


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Our response to His grace . . .

     How do I know I am justified?--It is a question which crops up a few times a month among us.  Certainly, there are different permutations.  Have I done enough?  Can I be certain of my destination?  Are you sure He loves everyone who repents?  I imagine the questions have been asked by His people since the Fall.  While I would have loved to have shared how Naboth’s vineyard and God’s judgment played out in modern times among us this week, I think it wiser to wait a few years for the events of this week to play out and for us to focus on whether we evidence that faith that worries us.

     Today’s readings have three different responses to the grace of God.  Four people give those responses, but each are informative to us and to our own questions.  Look back in our reading from 1 Kings.  God’s people have turned things into a real mess.  To remind you, there was a certain way in which the people were called to govern one another.  Village elders sat at the gates managing the smaller disputes.  Those disputes which proved to be “above them,” were supposed to be passed to the Temple in Jerusalem, where the “experts” resided.  There, those in power in the Temple were supposed to pronounced “more learned” judgments.  If they were stuck, the king was supposed to be consulted.  Remember, God’s king was supposed to meditate on His torah day and night.  And on those days when the king found the question too difficult, he was supposed to consult the prophet.  Now, I way over-simplify for the time constraints, but hopefully, you get the gist of what is wrong in our passage with the way things are working.

     Another problem, though, is the king’s seeming expectation that Naboth will give up his vineyard.  As we have remarked time and time again, ownership of the land was nearly sacramental.  It was, in modern confirmation language, an outward sign of the inward and spiritual condition of living in God’s favor.  If one had possession of the land promised to Abraham, then one was clearly being supported by Yahweh.  If one was dispossessed of that land, one was clearly cursed and cut off.  Imagine the shock of Naboth at the king’s request.  God’s own ruler and descendant of David is asking him to sell the land!  It would be even worse than the President of the United States coming to you, were you high Anglo-Catholic, and asking you to sell him your turn at the Eucharist for ever!  No more Eucharist for you!  Is there a price which would cause you to give up the Eucharist for ever?  Certainly for Naboth no such price existed.

     Typically, Ahab goes back and pouts.  His wife, Jezebel, mocks him.  Then she tells him she will fix the problem.  She perverts that appeal process we talked about earlier.  The elders conspire with the queen and scoundrels to convict and murder the faithful Naboth.  Jezebel tells Ahab that the vineyard is now unowned, and he heads to the vineyard to claim it as his own.  Like David before him, he thinks he has gotten away with murder, and he’s gotten a prime vineyard to boot!

     One response that comes from within to the offer of grace from God is enmity.  Ahab, Jezebel, the elders, the scoundrels, and anybody else in the conspiracy choose to reject God and His ways.  Their response to His love, His torah, is to pervert His holy instructions for their own personal gain.  There is no fear, there is no love of God.  There is only scheming and plotting and selfish aggrandizement.  Think of the interior rejection of God in their lives.  Each of those mentioned, save the scoundrels, has a unique responsibility to God and His torah.  Each has taken an office that requires, requires that they submit to and teach God’s ways.  And in a quick swoop, they reject His torah and violate two of the Ten Words for their own selfish gain.

     Fast forward to Luke’s Gospel lesson today.  Jesus has been invited to dine with a Pharisee.  While there, a woman who has sinned comes and washes Jesus’ feet and anoints His head.  We will look at her response more in a moment.  Right now, we need to look at the Pharisee’s response.  To the woman’s ablutions, the Pharisee comments that if the “prophet” knew this woman and her sins, the “prophet” would never let her touch Him, let alone be in the room with her.  In the mind of the Pharisee, Jesus’ unwillingness to separate Himself from sinners is a sure sign that He is not really of God.  After all, God loves only the righteous!  A prophet would know this.  Jesus, we know, asks the debtor question of Simon Peter.  Peter rightly answers that the one who has been forgiven more will be all the more grateful, all the more thankful.  The point is that the Pharisee has walled himself off from the world around him.  The Pharisee has convinced himself that he is deserving of God’s grace.  He truly thinks he should be loved by God.

     We see attitude this play out in churches today.  There are lots of churches out there who have walled themselves off from the world.  They convince themselves that they exist to serve themselves because they deserve God’s grace.  Such an attitude does not describe most of us, but there are individual pockets among us where such a tacit understanding festers.  If you have ever found yourself thinking that that you are somehow more deserving of God’s love and grace and forgiveness than, say those whom we serve at the Community or those whom we serve at Winnie’s Place or those whom we serve at AA or maybe even another church community that does not serve God in ways that meet your standards, then you are dangerously close to the position of the Pharisee.  If you believe that you and they have gotten what they and you have deserved from God, be careful!  The one forgiven little loves little.  Such an attitude, though, evidences itself in other ways.  Many of us know that churches exist for those not yet a member, but when the rubber meets the road in our own parish, look out!  Are we sure we want people like them worshipping with us?  Have they been members long enough to learn how things work around here so they can serve on the Vestry?  Why does this exist to serve them and not me?  I could go on, but we get the idea.  If you find yourself thinking, let alone expressing, such thoughts, be careful!  You may be like the Pharisee in our Gospel lesson today.  If we truly understand what God has done for us in Christ, such attitudes are impossible.  Each one of us, each and every one of us who gathers here to worship God, has been one of those people in our past.  It was only His transforming grace which saved us and turned us into those who can love much!

     Speaking of loving much, let us look at the last response.  You already know one.  It is personified by the response of the woman who has sinned.  Though she should never have reached out to Jesus, she dares to touch Him and wash His feet.  Unlike the Pharisee who neglects even the basics of hospitality in the face of the Anointed One, she washed His feet, anoints His head with oil from her jar, and generally rubs the road-weariness from His muscles.  She has nothing left to offer Jesus except the contents of her jar and her hair.  Those of us gathered here understand that a woman’s hair in the ANE was her crown.  Her head of hair was, in very real terms, her glory.  This lady has sullied herself.  We do not know how, nor do we need to know.  She, the Pharisee, and Jesus accept that she is a sinner.  All that remains to her is her hair.  And she uses that to wash the feet of the One who offers forgiveness.  She gives up that which she most values because she realizes that she has been given everything by the Lord Jesus.  The difference between her response and that of the Pharisee is profound.  She is overjoyed to the point of tears at the prospect of forgiveness.  Like those who gather in the our churches around the country and pray the Prayer of Humble Access, she knows her true worth and the true meaning of grace.  And to dwell in that grace forever, she will give up all that she values!

     One other character, though, shares her response.  We have looked at Elijah the last few weeks in our readings.  I have sometimes remarked how much he whines.  He calls down the fire on the altar, and he whines that he is driven into the wilderness; he calls down God’s provision of oil and flour for the widow and her son, and he whines at the death of the son.  Look at his response to the Lord today, though.  Even though Ahab and Jezebel have pronounced a death sentence on this, their enemy (God’s prophet, in case you have forgotten), Elijah does not hesitate to do as God commands.  No whining.  No crying.  He simply obeys faithfully and does as instructed.  God says “Go to Naboth’s vineyard and tell the king.”  Elijah knows what he has been told to do is dangerous.  And worse, although we skip much of his prophesy, the words the Lord gives him are not going to be well-received by that king that hates him.  Yet he obeys without complaint and goes to Naboth’s vineyard, reminiscent of his prophetic forebear, Nathan.  Having dwelt in the presence of God, Elijah has come to understand better the Lord whom he serves.  Literally, through trials by fire and trials by flight and through the experience of God’s provision, Elijah has been transformed into the mouthpiece of God.  Where God sends him, he will go; what God tells him to say, he will say.  He will trust that His Lord, who has the power over death itself, will not fail him.

     Both the woman and the prophet share in that faithful obedience.  Both, in wildly different ways, have come to appreciate the grace that God has offered them.  The woman responds by washing the dust of the Lord; Elijah responds by silently obeying the Lord.  No questions are asked.  They simply trust that He will accomplish all that He purposes, no matter how crazy it must seem to them, nor how much the world testifies against them.  Notice, the woman continues to wash Jesus even as the Pharisee criticizes Jesus because of her ministrations and Elijah speaks God’s judgment against Ahab and Jezebel, even though he knows that judgment will only incite them against him and God all the more.

     Brothers and sisters, which response best characterizes your own response to God’s grace in your life?  You have dragged yourself to church on a hot humid day to listen to a boring sermon, so I am going to bet you are not inimical to God at this point in your spiritual life.  But are you more like the Pharisee, or are you more like the woman or Elijah?  When you ponder all that God has done for you, when you ponder the gift that He freely offered you from the hard wood of the cross, are you driven to thankful tears and adoration?  Are you compelled by love to offer that which you value you most in thanksgiving and wonder?  Or are you, instead, tempted to pat yourself on the back thinking you deserve that offer?  That He died for others but really only took a thorn or two for you?  Are you excited to be hear listening to the saving works He has done and worshipping Him for His works, or would you rather be in bed, on a golf course, hanging out with friends, or maybe fishing?  If we know what He has done for us, if we know like the lady and like Elijah that we have redeemed, only one pattern of behavior is truly acceptable.  The rest is a warning that we might not be the people of faith we suppose ourselves to be.

     Now, I could leave the question hanging and send us all from here rightly afflicted.  Such, of course, is not His ways.  Even were we, upon prayerful reflection and discernment, to recognize we are in His enemy’s encampment, God always offers a way out.  If you find yourself fighting Him or thinking yourself deserving of His grace when compared to others, the solution to your dilemma is the same: repent.  Like the woman in our story, repent of your sins and embrace the forgiveness He offers.  It really is that simple.  His grace really is that sufficient.

     One last thing: today is Father’s Day.  I would be remiss to those men who decided to start their day by honoring and worshipping God were I to forget to encourage them as I do the moms on Mother’s Day.  Dads, you and I have an especially important role to play in salvation history.  I know we live in a world which likes to think that parents are interchangeable, that anyone can fill in for another in the life of a child.  We even live in a world where some of our brothers have bought into the myth that they are not that important in the life of their child.  Too often, fellow dads walk, if not run, away from their responsibilities as father.  But you and I need to be reminded that we are called to model the love and patience and doing good and grace for our children of our Father who is in heaven.  Nowhere is that modeling more important than in the practice of repentance and forgiveness and the extension of grace in our relationships.  As dads, you and I are called to forgive our children when they sin.  Often, they know the wrong that they have done, and they feel the shame of disappointing a loved one, especially a parent.  So much of their early lives are spent trying to earn the praise of a parent.  You and I are called to model the very behavior which leads ultimately to the Cross and His offer of salvation.  There is no better gift we can give a child than to love them for who they are, forgive them for when they do wrong, and to praise them when they try to do right.  By instilling that pattern of life in your children, and by bringing them to church for worship and education, you are demonstrating pre-Kingdom life at its absolute best.  You are helping to narrow the chasm that we put up between ourselves and God.  You are uniquely positioned to teach your child or children about their Father and the incredible love with which He loves them.  It is an incredible responsibility and gift to be a dad, one that should drive us to our knees in wonder and joy much like the lady in our reading today.  You and I dads, have been tasked with the responsibility of leading our children to our Father in heaven.  There is no greater responsibility.  Period.  And there is no greater joy than knowing we have planted our children firmly in the Kingdom soil.  One day, the golf courses and fishing holes and dark rooms for sleeping will pass away, but those who love and serve the Lord will live for ever, no longer weeping or fearful, but full of joy and awe.  


Tuesday, June 11, 2013

He stops our biers to raise us

     I am often critical of the lectionary editors when they cut and skip parts of or entire stories, so let me first sing their praises this week.  Could there be a better combination of OT and Gospel readings for Healing Sunday?  And, of course, the readings are even more timely reminders now that we have learned just before the service of the passing of Bob from this life to the next.  No doubt this will jumble a bit of what I meant to say to you today, but we will trust that the Holy Spirit will be here comforting those who mourn and, perhaps, afflicting those who need to be afflicted.

     Last week, we looked at one of Elijah’s “mountain top” experiences.  If you skipped last week, Elijah did battle with the false priests of Ba’al on top of Mt. Carmel.  Elijah was exasperated with Israel.  To his question and exhortation “if Ba’al is God, follow him; If Yahweh is God, follow Him” Israel could make no sound.  Elijah proceeded to do battle with the false priests, all 450 of them.  Initially, it was a spiritual battle, but as I mentioned last week, once Yahweh won the spiritual battle, Elijah had the 450 false priests killed.  Victory!  Right?  Israel obviously followed Yahweh, right?

     We skip some of the story this week.  Jezebel, the queen, is furious with Elijah.  She puts a price on his head.  How dare he kill Our priests!  We will show him who is Queen!  Elijah, rather than savoring the victory and earning the “well done good and faith servant” we might expect, is forced to flee.  He goes literally from the mountaintop to a nadir.  He is angry at God.  He whines at God.  And God reminds His prophet that His ways are not the prophet’s nor our ways.  God reveals to Elijah that He often speaks in the still, small voice that Elijah’s anger and whining are drowning out.  The great thing about God, well, one of many, is that God will work with us in spite of ourselves.  And so He instructs Elijah to go to Zarephath and live there.  God tells Elijah that He has commanded a widow to feed him there.

     You know that part of the story--everyone does who has been part of a stewardship drive.  Elijah asks the widow for water and food.  She responds by telling him that “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked.”  The prophet has interrupted her as she has been gathering sticks.  Her intent, she tells him, is to use the remaining flour and oil to make a morsel of dough and to cook it over the fire she will make with these sticks.  Elijah tells her that is all fine and good, but make him a little cake of it first and bring it to him.  He goes on to tell her that God has decreed that neither her oil nor her flour will empty until the Lord sends rain on the earth again.  It is certainly an amazing promise.

     I can only imagine what was going through her head as she headed off.  This idiot just will not listen.  I do not have enough for me and my son, yet he wants some of that as well.  But, she does as she is told.  And God keeps His word.  They eat for many days.  All’s well, right?  She obeyed; she is fed.  Elijah obeyed; and he is cared for yet again.  That’s the way it works in our minds, right?  God blesses us when we do as we are taught, and He punishes us when we don’t--isn’t that what we are often taught or come to believe?

     Fortunately, the story does not end there.  The son of the widow becomes ill and dies.  In my almost seven years here I have reminded you over and over again what life was like for widows.  Widows without sons were often reduced to begging or prostitution.  They really make the marginalized of today look like they are in the center of life.  We get hints, but in a world full of pensions and 401k’s and Medicare and home ownerships, our widows do not experience the same physical / provisional problems as their counterparts a few thousand years ago.  While there are still glass ceilings out there, and while there are emotional and spiritual pains which are common to both, most of our widows can and do provide for themselves in ways that would simply amaze their spiritual great, great, great grandmothers.  That is why God, over and over and over and over again in the Old Testament, reminds His people that He loves widows and orphans.  He wants His people to remember the most vulnerable in their midst.

     In that death of her son, all the widow’s hopes have dissipated.  Her only real hope, or so she thought, was to raise that son until he was of age to marry.  The the son and his wife could care for her in her old age.  Now, in spite of her willingness to obey the prophet, her hopes are dashed.  Her plans are ruined.  Her hope has been torn from her heart.

    Look at how her mind works.  You [man of God] have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son.  It does not seem fair or just, does it?  I mean, the least God could do would be to protect them for their faithfulness.  What good is unending oil and flour if your loved ones are not around to share it?  Israel deserves these kinds of punishments because they have chosen not to trust the prophet and to follow Yahweh, but this foreign widow does not.  She has done precisely what God told her.  Punishing her would be like Jesus zapping the widow who places a penny in the offering plate at the Temple.  Notice, though, what we are told of her thoughts.  First, God is Elijah’s Lord and God.  She refers to Him as Your Lord and Your God, not our Lord and our God.  There is a distance there.  She is not of Israel.  Second, she recognizes that her sin rightfully merited death.  As happy and amazed as she must have been to be eating her fill, she immediately calls to mind a sin that justifies her son’s death.  This lady, when we meet her with Elijah, is gathering sticks and preparing to die.  It is almost like God has given her a brief respite of happiness and hope and then pulled the legs out from under her.  Like the false gods, He seems capricious.

     And Elijah thinks her complaint has merit.  Why did You bring calamity even on this widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?  Talk about a roller coaster ride of emotions.  Elijah gets to see these cool miracles, and then he gets to see the cruel vicissitudes of life.  One moment he is exalting; the next moment he is whining and complaining.  Isn’t that, though, our spiritual condition.  When things are going well, we tend to fall into one of two traps:  either we believe we deserve the good, or we forget to thank God for the blessings.  I know I teared up this morning in the call to worship.  Usually, I get time to compose myself when I lose one entrusted to my care.  My problem this morning is that I knew the readings, and I could hear Bob’s voice in them.  The problem for us pastors, sometimes, is that we see the struggles, the fears, the hurts, the unbeliefs, and worry that our faith is not enough.  And we walk through those struggles with those entrusted to us.  It is hard not to cry when you realize what has happened.  And I realize that Bob is truly happy this morning.  He has traded in that broken body and is likely playing bridge with his beloved bride, Mary Lea!  We can rejoice at their reunion and joy in the Lord, but we feel their absence, and we pray for their loved ones who have not had the last year to become accustomed to their absence.

     As most of you know, though, he suffered terrible pain from his vascular problems.  When the stents would would and open up the blood flow, Bob would always give thanks to God.  In fact, in approaching each operation, nurses and doctors would explain the risk, and Bob would sometimes cheerfully remind them not to worry if he died, he was trading in this clunker for a better one when he saw Jesus.  As a pastor, it was great to watch him either teach nurses and doctors about God or remind them what they already new.  More than once, it was remarked to me that Bob had that, “you know, that peace that passes all understanding thing.”  Yes, I knew what they meant.  But it was also true that Bob walked through valleys and wildernesses.  He would, from time to time, hear of and see the miraculous healings in this service or at the hospital and wonder why he was excluded.  Was it this?  Was it that?  Is God giving me this to punish me?  Bob knew better than many here, and yet he, too, fell into that same trap.  Looking at the nodding heads and tears, and remembering some of your stories, I know some of you share those fears, those hurts, those pains, and those doubts.  Some of you are wondering Why has He not healed me all these years that I have faithfully come to Him in prayer and supplication?  I said a moment early that we are fortunate in that the story continues to this death.  Why?  Because had it stopped there, we could all allow our imaginations to convince us that are sufferings of God’s punishments toward us.  What happens teaches us that such is not at all the case.

     Elijah stretches his body over the boy three times and cries out to God to let the child’s life come into him again.  The Lord, we are told, listens to Elijah, and the life of the child was allowed back in.  The boy, we are told, is revived.  He is not resurrected, and this is important to understand.  The young man will be subject to the same vicissitudes of life as you or me or his mom or even Elijah.  This is not, not the Resurrected body he is promised if He follows God.  This boy will one day die again.  Even so, the widow recognizes God’s power in Elijah.  She knows the words of Elijah are true.  She does not yet think of God as “her God,” but neither is He “your Lord, your God.”

     Fast forward now to our Gospel lesson.  We encounter the same problem.  A widow is burying her son.  Fortunately for her, she encounters Jesus, who has compassion on her.  In a simply amazing act, He stretches His hand to and touches the bier, bringing the procession to a halt.  The prophet has made Himself unclean!  What is He doing?  Doesn’t he know the torah?  This is going to cost Him?  Like our Old Testament story, the dead boy of a widow is brought back to life.  Notice, of course, the subtle differences.  Elijah entreats God to act; Jesus simply says “Young man, I say to you, rise!”  There is no stretching out over the body.  There are no fancy incantations or gestures.  Jesus’ power is absolute.  He speaks a word, and even the dead obey!  And while Elijah’s miracle is private; Jesus does His work of power in the midst of all those mourning.  These differences are important because they help us answer Elijah’s question from last week.

     We live in a world which testifies that the power of death is absolute.  Want to show somebody just how powerful you are?  Kill them.  Does a month go by when we do not have somebody bursting in with guns and killing innocent people?  If I say the words Newtown, movie theater, or mention California from this past week, we all recognize the truth that individuals think that real power is to cause someone’s death.  And certainly, our companion dioceses have much to teach us about this attitude.  The people in Nzara, southern South Sudan, have the Lord’s Liberation Army blowing through their towns and villages from time to time.  The army kills, rapes, kidnaps, enslaves, and destroys to demonstrate its power.  All of that, of course, is really just for spite. Nzara is considered poor by South Sudan standards which, as you know, are not exactly a bar set high.  Similarly, our brothers and sisters in Swaziland live in this place where death is the ultimate expression of power.  Think about it for just a second.  How bad must your ruler be to be considered among the top three tyrants / despots in the world today?  Certainly their widows understand our stories today far better than we.  When their men or boys are killed, they are often forced into prostitution.  Why does HIV affect so many in their country?  How else can they survive, given the government and attitude of those in power?  Even the cynic among us today might point out that, for all his love, for all his faith, Bob was even undone by death.  God could have saved him, if He was real and if He wanted.

     There are lots of counterclaims in the Gospel against the world, but today’s readings remind us of the one which separates us from the world and all its problems.  Last week, Elijah asked of Israel and of us “Who is God, follow Him?”  There exists lots of powers and principalities and gods who claim power by the use of death as the ultimate enforcement of their will.  There is only one God, the Lord, who claims the power of life over death.  Do you fear the powers of those others?  Follow them as your God.  Do you find hope in the power of Christ?  Then you should follow Him.  As with last week, silence is not an answer in the face of such testimony.  Only God claims sovereignty even over death.  And, in that sovereignty, the absolute power that is tempered by that same compassion which causes our Lord to stop the bier and take on the uncleanliness of death, the same compassion which caused Him to follow that path which led Caiaphas and Pilate and finally to Golgotha, we as human beings find hope.  Why is it, as His people, can we take the blessings and vicissitudes of life and proclaim He is Lord, blessed be His name?  Why is it that we can stand over a grave of sister or brother who has proceeded us in death and sing alleluia?  Why in the face of death and destruction and despots and invading armies can God’s people have hope?  Why is it our sisters and brothers in Swaziland or South Sudan or Connecticut or Colorado or California or Virginia can go on with life?  It is because God conquers the grave!  If these stories of the dead being raised back to life are false, then we are to be pitied because we have believed in a lie.  But if they are true and, more importantly, if it is true that Christ was resurrected after three days, then we truly have reason to hope!

     Brothers and sisters, your condition on earth does not reflect your Father’s love of you.  His Son, hung on a cross, is His ultimate expression of His love for you.  While you and I were yet a rebel, a prodigal son or daughter, He acted to save you and to save me.  He took on our sin, our uncleanliness, and carried it to the grave when He died for us on that cross.  Period.  End of story?  No.  That we might know that He has the power to redeem all things in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, the Lord raised Him to new life.

     We are focusing this year a bit more intentionally on our spiritual needs and our own lives as disciples.  Last week, I asked you who or what was god in your life and encouraged you to follow it or him.  As it turned out, it was a more challenging question than some would have liked to believe.  There were some strong, but honest struggles with the question.  That is perfectly fine.  Until we join Bob and Mary Lea at that great bridge game (I am kidding, I hope no one will be forced to play bridge), you and I will continue to struggle.  We will experience mountain tops and wildernesses; we will at times have no doubt of His love for us and at other times wonder whether we can ever be loved.  This week, God through the plight of widows, and hopefully me through some impassioned and empowered teaching, has reminded you and I why we should choose to follow Him.  Only God commands even the dead to rise.  Only God stretches out His hand with compassion and stops our biers.  Only God redeems, even the plight of widows.  So I ask you again this week, “Who is God in your life.  Follow him.”  


Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Decisions . . . decisions . . . decisions . . .

I have to admit, our passage from 1 Kings today is one of my favorite passages in entirety of the Old Testament.  When people stumble across well done movies about biblical stories, I often wish this was one that was done.  It has a bit of everything except sex, though I suppose even that is implied in general terms under the worship of Ba’al.  It has suspense.  The special effects opportunities would make CGI work.  Oh, and God wins!  It is, unfortunately, one of those passages that Christians, at least Christian pastors, tend to avoid like the plague.  God in this passage is revealed to be Himself.  And let’s face it, many of us would rather not like to think of God being Himself when confronting idolators.

The scene for the passage today follows a three year drought.  As a punishment for Israel’s unfaithfulness, God has closed up the heavens.  No rain has been allowed to fall on Israel.  How unfaithful has Israel been?  Omri, Ahab’s father, has sealed a treaty with Phoenicia by accepting Jezebel as a wife for Ahab.  Yes, the queen in Israel is a foreigner.  You might remember that God instructed Israel that they were not to take wives (or husbands, for that matter) from foreigners.  Do you remember why?  God tells Israel that foreigners will cause their sons and daughters to turn aside from following Him.

Not surprisingly, that is just what Jezebel intended to do.  As a worshipper of Ba’al, Jezebel was bound and determined to subvert Israel’s worship of Yahweh.  She built a temple in Samaria.  She set about to remove any who were faithful to Yahweh from the courts of her husband.  The end result was the beginning of our battle today.  Lots of priests of Ba’al were recruited to Israel.  Few faithful to Yahweh remained openly in Israel.  In fact, Elijah will claim in our reading today that he is the only one who is faithful to Yahweh.  And, according to the narrative today, Elijah is the only one who sets up the altar to Yahweh in the impending cosmic battle.

Before we get to that point, though, notice the spiritual condition of Israel.  After Ahab has assembled everyone on Mount Carmel, Elijah asks Israel who they worship.  He tells them that if they believe Ba’al is god, then they should follow him.  If they believe Yahweh is God, then they should follow Him.  It is a simple choice.  Follow the one you believe will save you.  Curiously, Israel lacks the courage of its convictions.  They are absolutely silent.  Compare that with the exhortation and response of Joshua when Israel crossed the Jordan and declared that day whom they would serve!  Will they follow Yahweh?  No.  Will they follow after the god of Jezebel?  No.  Will they follow a god of their own making?  No.  They are trying hard not to make a decision.

Then begins the awesome battle.  I won’t bore you with the details, but notice how Elijah gives the priests of Ba’al the first choice of bull, the opportunity to go first, to work together, and so on.  There will be no whining after this that Yaweh cheated.  They got to pick the bull.  They got to go first.  The efforts of the priests of Ba’al are almost heroic.  They chant their chants, they dance their dance, they cut themselves to draw upon the power of blood!  Our author describes them working themselves into a frenzy.  And nothing happens . . . 

Elijah, of course, as the hours wear on, begins to mock the priests of Ba’al.  Our translators did not like the earthy language of his taunts, but Elijah mocks the priests that Ba’al must be on his “throne” in the bathroom or asleep or on a journey.  Eventually, the priests of Ba’al, all 450 of them, give up exhausted by their efforts and await to see if Elijah will have any better luck.

Elijah’s preparations must have stunned Israel.  He takes 12 stones and rebuilds the altar.  Cultural memory is awakened.  I mentioned a moment ago the crossing of the Jordan into the Promised Land.  When they crossed, God commanded Israel to build an altar of 12 stones that had been uncovered by the drying of the Jordan on the spot where they crossed over.  In the generations that were to come, Israel would always be reminded that God had kept His promises and had led them into the land promised to Abraham.

He then instructs the people who have drawn near to dig a deep trench around the altar and places the pieces of the sacrifice on the altar.  Then he has them pour water over the altar three times.  Think of the symbolism in the minds of the people.  They are three years into a drought, and this prophet of Yahweh uses so much water that even the deep trench is full.  Then, it is show time.

Unlike his Ba’al counterparts who dance and chant and cut themselves, Elijah merely entreats God to act.  “Let them know that I have acted according to Your will and that it was You who turned their hearts back to You.”  Elijah understands that God cannot be forced to act.  Elijah even understands that his words cannot turn the hearts of Israel back to God.  The fireball descends, we are told, and it consumes the altar, the wood, the offering, the water in the trench, and even the dust.  Yahweh leaves no doubt who has acted.  The people, we are told, fall on their faces proclaiming the Lord is God, at least until Elijah instructs them to kill the priests of Ba’al.

The story goes on, and the aftermath of today’s events is fodder for a number of sermons.  Jezebel threatens to kill God’s prophet because he had 450 of her false god’s prophets killed, Elijah finds himself at a nadir of faith begging God to let him die, and eventually Ahab and Jezebel’s rule is ended by Yahweh.  As I said, it is a made-for-tv-movie waiting to happen.

The reading today, however, is certainly timely in terms of sermon material for today’s Church and today’s world.  Around here we take seriously Scripture’s claim that it is God-breathed and useful for the building up of the saints in the faith.  More importantly, the readings today seem to be very challenging when it comes to finding Christ in them.  It is, admittedly, a hard thing to ponder that Christ is the subject of this story, if it is truly God-breathed.  But that is precisely why the story was preserved by God and why we in the modern Church should spend some significant time considering it.

The spiritual condition of Israel is something to which we can all relate.  Most of us have been in that position ourselves, and all of us know people who have been or are currently in that position.  I am speaking, of course, about indecision.  I have noticed in the last decade or so that indecision has become a default position for so many about the so-called “tough subjects.”  Maybe it’s because our politicians are always on camera trying to dance around difficult decisions.  Maybe it is because we are afraid of hurting people’s feelings.  Maybe it’s because we really do not know what we believe or why.  Maybe, like Israel, when put to the choice, we simply do not know what we believe.  I think many of us can understand Israel’s silence in the face of Elijah’s first challenge.  “Who do you believe is God?  Follow him.”  It was a simple question and a simple instruction in light of the answer to that question.  On the one hand, Yahweh had brought a drought on Israel for its unfaithfulness.  On the other hand, the king was married to a queen who worshipped Ba’al.  Choosing Ba’al might mean more drought; choosing Yahweh would likely mean being marginalized by the king and queen.  No matter the answer, there was a cost to be paid.  Maybe they thought the best way not to offend a god was not to choose one.

The same is true today.  Whom do you believe is God?  Is it God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit?  Then follow Him.  Is it nature?  Then follow nature.  Is it yourself?  Then follow yourself.  What no doubt infuriated Elijah, and frustrates many today, is that so many people lack the courage of their convictions.  I meet tons of people who claim they are Christians.  When I ask “where do you go to church?,” you should see the contortions.  Well, I um, well, my kids have soccer.  My kids have baseball.  Sunday is the only day I get to sleep in on, and I know God wants me to get some rest.  Who needs church to be a good Christian.  My faith is between God and me; I don’t need to explain myself to you.  That last one is one of my favorites.  They begin the conversation, make the claim that they follow Christ, and then gripe at me for doing my job--helping them explore their faith in God.  It is a fine line to walk, certainly, when we in service to God challenge others about their faith.  We have to remember that our Lord came not to condemn but to save, but we need also to be on the lookout for cold faith or no faith.  We also need to remember that God takes the answer to Elijah’s question seriously.  If we are not worshipping Him, if we are not praying and singing to Him, if we are not trying to meet Him in all that we do, are we really His?

What is the first commandment?  God takes Himself so seriously that He reminds us He alone is God and that He alone is worthy of honor, and worship, and praise.  He goes so far as to tell us that He is a jealous God.  He expects what is rightfully His.  Since everything is His, including us, He expects us to worship and to follow Him.  Period.  No equivocation.  No silence.  No indecision.  Elijah’s question is a question that is asked throughout Scripture.  Who do you say that I am?  Choose this day Whom you will serve.  The question is foundational for life because the answer will inform everything else in our life.  If we believe God is God, we will commit ourselves to living as one of His disciples.  That belief should inform our economics, our psychology, our relationships, our families,  our everything.  That is why it is asked so often.  And that is why a wrong answer is so lamentable in Scripture.  Indecision is the same as wrong-decison when God finally judges.  And we must always be on guard against assuming His lack of judgment means approval.  It may just be an extension of His grace and mercy.

Does God want us to get rest?  You bet!  The sabbath is also part of the Ten Commandments.  But which is greater, worshipping God or resting?  Put differently, but just as challenging, is there ever a time where God does not expect us to gather in worship?  Maybe Sunday’s no longer work--I am open to that.  But does that mean God excuses us from weekday worship?  From daily prayers and hymns of adoration?  Can we rightly claim to be His, and the not give to Him what is rightfully His?  And if we examine that answer fully, we are brought back to Elijah’s question this morning.  Perhaps, remembering the first Commandment, we begin to understand part of the teaching in today’s lesson.

Think of how terribly disappointed God must have been at this point in salvation history.  He promised, promised, if Israel kept His commandments He would bless them and if they did not, he would curse them.  He has remained faithful to His promise.  Israel has not.  And because of their unfaithfulness, He withheld the rains.  Now, to compound matters, the king has married a foreigner who worships idols!  Is this scene messy?  Yes.  Does it mock idols and those who worship them?  Perhaps.  Perhaps, though, it is a warning rather than a mockery.  We are coming off an Easter season in which we spent some time in Revelations.  Scripture is clear that the Day of the Lord will occur.  We may not know when; in fact, we might well be caught unawares if we are not careful, but we know it will happen.  On that day, the fate of those who reject God will be no less lamentable, no less costly, than for those prophets of Ba’al from our story today.

All that, of course, brings us back to Christ.  If He is correct that all Scripture points to Him, where is He in this passage?  Again, in an age dominated by “COEXIST” bumper stickers and religious pluralism, in general, the story from today sounds harsh.  It may be difficult to see Him, but He is there.  No one in Scripture, least of all Jesus of Nazareth, ever claimed His work on the Cross was easy or that following Him would be painless.  Over and over again we are reminded of the cost of our salvation.  As people who gather in worship around an altar and celebrate the Eucharist, we should be constantly reminded of His body broken for us and His blood shed for us.  There was a real cost for our unfaithfulness, and He has paid it in full!

One of the parts of our story today which makes people uncomfortable is the judgment which follows God’s consuming fire.  If, however, the scene makes us uncomfortable, perhaps it is because we forget the nature of the contest.  Israel is being asked to choose between God and Ba’al.  Who, in the end, acted?  Who, in the end, is God?  The false prophets attached themselves to an idol.  Ba’al could do nothing to save them.  So when judgment came from God, they were utterly defenseless.

Those, however, claim to follow God were protected by His grace and mercy.  As this plays out in our story today, Israel is not punished for its unfaithfulness.  In fact, God acts at the entreaty of Elijah to show them that He, God alone, has turned their hearts back to Him.  Even in the middle of the Old Testament, human beings cannot save themselves.  Human beings cannot earn His grace.  Elijah recognizes that, as should we, those of us who live on this side of the Cross and the Empty Tomb.  When we could not save ourselves, He took our punishment, God’s wrath, upon Himself.

I know that one of the reasons this passage makes us uncomfortable is the fact that so much blood is shed.  Two bulls and 450 prophets are put to death.  That is a lot of seemingly unnecessary death.  It is, in the sense that the people, the false prophets included, should have followed and obeyed Yahweh.  But, it also points us to the seriousness with which God takes sin.  The wages of sin is death.  Any time Israel or we act to separate ourselves from God we earn death.  And, following the thread, we have all earned death.  A lot.  For some of us, maybe a lot just this week.  Now, God could have kept Himself rightfully separated from us.  He could have allowed us to die in our sin.  But in His mercy He sent His Son.  He sent His Son not just to die for us, but to teach us and, through His intercessions, empower us to do God’s will.  That’s why Paul today insists it is the Gospel, the only true Gospel!  The only redeeming faith, the only faith worth believing is in Christ.  He died for us.  He was raised for us.  And He promises to redeem all of us who believe in Him.  His death, as painful and as gruesome as it was, was for all our sins.

Another reason the passage makes us uncomfortable, however, is absolute demand of loyalty.  We live in a pluralist world, much like Pilate, which proclaims there is no Truth.  Those of us gathered here together today, though, remind ourselves that we serve a God who proclaims Truth.  Only God is faithful.  Only God is capable of acting to redeem.  Those who served Ba’al no doubt truly believed in him.  In the end, though, he could do nothing to save them.  In the end, Ba’al could do nothing to punish Elijah for the mockery.  The same is true for all of today’s idols.  In the end, they cannot do anything for those who worship them, except mislead them from the Lord who calls to us from the Cross, from Scripture, and in that still small voice that Elijah will hear.

Ah, but what of ourselves?  Can’t we save ourselves?  Aren’t we masters of our own domains and captains of our own ships?  It is a pleasing thought, but we all know we are not up to the task.  Can any of us extend our lives by a day?  Can any of us thwart death when it comes?  We can have all the money in the world, all the good thoughts, all the most up to date best practices, and still we have no answer for death.  In the end,  if we are silent or if we reject God, we live under the curse of our sins.  If stories like today are fancies, then our silence or choices are truly meaningless.  But if the Cross and Empty Tomb were real events, then they are really game changers.  Nothing is as the world proclaims!  All of Scripture must be true.  If Jesus was raised from the dead, then He must be the Way, the Truth, and the Life just as He claimed.  Access to the Father can only come through Him because His position in history is unique.  His position in history and salvation have been validated by His Resurrection.

Will some who serve other than God in Christ on earth be part of the re-creation?  Perhaps.  As I say often around here, the One who died and rose again for my sins makes the rules, not me.  Of even more comfort to me, He makes no mistakes.  In the end, it is His party.  He throws it, and He paid the price of admission.  Yet in His infinite wisdom, He has chosen to reveal His salvation through Christ crucified and resurrected!  He has shown us all the Way; He has shown us all the Truth; He has shown us all the Life to which He calls us.  And He has called each one of us to testify, to witness to His saving grace in our lives to the world around us.  Knowing that, why would we ever bet on one of those “uncovenanted mercies,” as Bishop Hobart used to call them after the founding of our nation, one of those alternate paths which may, in the end, led us to death and destruction?  Why not stick with what we know works?  Why not choose life in Christ?

Perhaps sitting here today it has dawned on you that you are more like Israel at the beginning of our narrative than you thought.  Perhaps, hearing His small still voice, you have come to recognize that you are silent when it comes to choosing which God you serve.  What can be done for you?  Just as will Israel today, it is never too late to serve God.  All that He requires is that we repent of our sins and ask Him to rule our lives.  You see, He has already acted to save us.  Even while we were enemies, even while we refused to choose to follow Him, He chose to act on our behalf.  We need only to grasp that hand He extended to us.  And just like that, He sees His Son in us.  He came not to condemn but to save.  But, even as infinitely patient as His is, we must choose.  Whom do you serve?  Follow Him.