Sunday, June 30, 2013

Ordinary 13C, June 30, 2013

"No Ordinary Altar Call"

1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21
Luke 9 51-62

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village. As they were going along the road, someone said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." To another he said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." But Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." Another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home." Jesus said to him, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."

The time had come, as Jesus knew it would. 

Today we reach the pivot point of Jesus’ ministry in the gospel of Luke.  Jesus is on the road with his disciples and he has made the final turn toward Jerusalem.  Jesus told his disciples this time was coming, but they are still unclear on what the turn toward Jerusalem signifies.  Only Jesus knows what lies ahead for the disciples and for him. Jesus’ suffering and death.  The cross. But Jesus is resolute.  Unwavering.  Determined. 

Luke tells us that Jesus meets immediate resistance when he and the disciples come to the village of the Samaritans, but doesn’t really tell us why the Samaritans don’t want Jesus there.  Jesus has been on decent terms with the Samaritans, so their response to Jesus is somewhat odd.  Jesus’ behavior is also strange.  It seems Jesus is barely noticing the Samaritans because his mind is already headed somewhere else.  Maybe the Samaritans are reacting to the fact that Jesus is headed toward a place they cannot stand.  The Samaritans are not fond of Jerusalem or the Jewish people.  And at the moment, the Samaritans are not too fond of Jesus and his disciples either. 

The ground is shifting in this text. The stakes have suddenly ratcheted up a couple hundred notches.  The rules of engagement are changing and people around Jesus are beginning to feel a little less certain about the road ahead. 

In the face of rejection, James and John decide to call down fire from heaven to wipe the Samaritans out, reminiscent of Elijah calling down fire on the prophets of Ba’al.  But Jesus isn’t Elijah.  Jesus does not meet the Samaritan’s rejection with violence or even an argument.  In fact, Jesus silences the disciples because he knows that this scuffle with the Samaritans is nothing compared to what is to come.  There is more --  and more awful --  rejection on the horizon.  And Jesus will not meet rejection with vengeance, but will go willingly into hostility and meet violence as Jesus always does – with love and forgiveness.   The only people rebuked are Jesus’ disciples, not the inhospitable Samaritans.

So Jesus and his disciples pick up and move on to another village.  And while they are on their way, three potential recruits sidle up next to them.

The first one says, “Hey, Jesus, sign me up…I will follow you wherever you go.”  And Jesus says to him, “Are you sure?  Are you sure you’re ready for this kind of life?  After all, foxes have holes and birds have nests, but as for me, I have nothing like a permanent home.  In fact, if you follow me, you will almost certainly live the life of a nomad, never knowing where you’ll end up day by day.  Are you sure you’re ready for that?” 

Jesus meets another person on the road and this time Jesus invites the man to join them. “Follow me,” Jesus says.   And the man says, “Sure, I will follow you.  But I’ve got to go bury my father first.  After that, I’m all yours, Jesus.”  And Jesus’ response is just horrible, isn’t it?  “Let the dead bury the dead. Forget about what has already passed.  I’m inviting you to proclaim the kingdom of God.  That’s what matters now.  The kingdom of God can’t wait.”

Finally, another man comes along and says he very excited about following Jesus, but first he’s got to say goodbye to his family.  And again, Jesus says that circling back to unfinished business is not an option for those who wish to follow him.  If you want to plow a field, you have to plow a field with your eyes open and your face looking forward and both hands on the plow.  If you are serious about following Jesus, you have to seriously let go of everything you valued in your past.  All that matters is what’s in front of you and where Jesus is headed.  Your past is past and the time for moving forward is now.

This is tough talk.  Jesus cuts us no slack. This is not exactly a problem text, but it is a problematic Jesus we’ve got on our hands this morning.  This is a Jesus who isn’t interested in stalling tactics or excuses, even really good excuses like keeping a roof over our heads or honoring our family responsibilities or following our sacred traditions.  This is the kind of Jesus talk that helps us begin to sort of understand why the Samaritans and a lot of other people don’t want Jesus around. 

It’s no wonder that every time I’ve heard this text preached, the pastor tries to smooth out the sharp edges of Jesus’ demands so Jesus doesn’t seem so…well…demanding.  But I wonder if Jesus doesn’t mean exactly what he says here and we need to take what he says seriously instead of trying to wiggle out of it.  If Jesus really means what he says here, is this a Jesus we are willing to follow?  The kind of Jesus who tells us we can’t depend on a comfortable place to live?  The kind of Jesus who says following him is more important that keeping traditions of proper burial?  The sort of Jesus who won’t even let us go back to say goodbye to our old lives?   Are we willing to suffer the rejection that comes from being a disciple of Jesus?  Are we willing to follow this Jesus all the way to Jerusalem? Even all the way to the cross?  

All of these nagging questions have led me to the uncomfortable realization that if Jesus were running a Billy Graham crusade, he wouldn’t be the kind of evangelist who ends the service by begging people to come forward and give their lives to him.  Don’t get me wrong; I am sure Jesus’ preaching would be amazing.  I’m sure the music would be incredible.  But if Jesus were running a revival service, I sort of think he would be up front telling people, “Are you sure you’re ready to sign up for this?  Have you really thought this through? Because you are really in for a rude awakening if you imagine your life is be any easier if you follow me. In fact, it will probably get harder.”  

At the end of a Jesus revival, I think the number of disciples Jesus would pick up would probably be around the number he attracts in this passage today.  Which, if you’ve noticed, is exactly 0.  If we take this passage from Luke remotely seriously, I think we can come to the conclusion that Jesus would be a total failure as an evangelist, at least when it comes to number of people who decide to stick with him after the alter call.

On the other hand, given who we are and what we drag in with us when we run into Jesus on a normal day -- our excuses, our weakness, and the generally awful human condition so apparent in this world – it could be that this demanding Jesus is exactly the Savior we need.  Because Jesus comes into the muck and disorder of human existence and isn’t the least bit bothered in seeing it for what it is, and seeing us for who we are.  God had the utter audacity to show up as one of us, and Jesus, the incarnate Lord knows exactly what we’re up to.  There’s no place left to hide and that is very good news, whether it feels good or not.

One of the most significant problems we have as modern day Christians is that we want to be, I think, entirely non-offensive.  Heaven forbid we demand too much of ourselves or each other.  I have met very few pastors who don’t have a hidden or not-so-hidden need to be liked.  I have met very few church people who would respond positively to the kind of challenge Jesus throws down in this text.  I think all of us do a fair amount of trying to shape Jesus according to our needs and our wants and our preferences, instead of allowing Jesus to shape us. 

But Luke challenges us to consider what it is that is preventing us from truly following Jesus.  To do the kind of soul-searching that, frankly, gives me a big fat headache because every excuse Jesus rejects in this text is an excuse I have given in one form or another at various times of my life.   And so have you. 

But isn’t it important that we honor our commitments to love and support our families?  Jesus really makes it sound like an all or nothing proposition, and that is where I get stuck.  Yet, I don’t want to smooth out the sharp edges of this text, or try to romanticize the hard work of following Jesus. 

Perhaps the choice isn’t between following Jesus and honoring our other responsibilities.  Perhaps what Jesus wants to do is reshape our lives.  What difference does Jesus make for us? 

What would our lives look like if our commitment to Jesus shaped how we handled our financial and material possessions?  What would our lives look like if the love of Christ were reflected in all of our relationships with our families, our husbands, wives, parents, children and even with people who are not our kin?  What would our lives look like if Jesus truly were the center of our identity and everything we did flowed out of that?  What would change in our lives if we truly went “all in” with Jesus? 

Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem and invites us to move with him with nothing to take with us but a cross.  When everything gets stripped away, when the stakes get high, when the road ahead is anything but certain – that is when we need to be certain who we are and to whom we belong.  When we are facing moments of great stress, when we feel most acutely the sense that the ground is shifting and our false identities are crumbling.

When the woman who has built her identity around being the “good mother” – what happens when she finds out her child is addicted to drugs or suffering from mental illness?  If her identity has been built around being the perfect mother to a perfect child, who is she when that identity is blown to bits?

When the man who has built his identity around being the  “good provider” – what happens when loses his job and finds himself unable to financially care for his family? If his identity has been defined by his work, who is he when there is no job to go to?

If we take away the identity of career or family or what you own – strip away all of that – who are you?  It’s a critical question to ask, because that is the person Jesus wants to know.  That’s the person Jesus wants as a follower.  That’s the person – that essential you – who was claimed in baptism.  That is your true self.  That is who you are.  A child of God, the person loved deeply by God, not for what you do or do not do.  You are a child of God who is loved simply because you are. 

Richard Rohr is a priest and spiritual director who has written a lot about the true self and the false self.  For Rohr, the false self is created by all of the culture’s expectations of who we are.  The false self is our body image, our job, our car, our education, our success, our failure, and so on.[1] The false self is constantly needy, fragile, dissatisfied with who it is and always reinventing itself.  The false self is a branch cut off from the vine.  It is a single grain of wheat.  The false self is an illusion, yet it hard to give up.  The false self has a million excuses for remaining false.  Rohr says that giving up our false self and living into our true self – our identity in Christ -- feels like dying and, in a way, it is.  That is Paul’s metaphor for our baptism after all.  It is the dying of our old, false selves and taking on a new, true identity in Christ.[2]   

The true self, on the other hand, is who we are in Christ and who Christ is in us.  Our true self is satisfied and content with the person God has created us to be.  Our true self that is connected to the vine and connected to others.  Rohr writes:  “In ordinary language, the true self is held together by the glue of…love. ‘For God is love and anyone who lives in love lives in God, and God lives in him’ (1 John 4:16).”[3]  The true self is the essence of freedom; it binds us to one another and to Jesus in a way that doesn’t feel the least bit like a heavy burden or onerous responsibility.  It is a freedom releases us to live into God’s purposes for us.   

How much of the ballast of our false selves do we drag around that we do not need and would be better left behind?  “Let the dead bury their dead” sounds less like a cold response and more like a genuine invitation to new life as a follower of Jesus, the one who promised us an easy yoke and a light burden.

So here we are.  We are standing on a dusty road with Jesus.  He is headed to Jerusalem and he has invited us to follow him.  And if we follow, we will head into a deeper understanding of who we have been created to be.  Beyond our violence, prejudice, disgust, guilt and shame.  Beyond the false categories that life has piled onto us.  Beyond every excuse our panicky brains can conjure.  If we follow, Jesus promises we will lose our lives, but we will find new life that cannot ever end and is in fact, eternal.  We can believe that promise.  We can make that promise as the center of our lives.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Rohr, Richard.  Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self.  27
[2] Ibid, Appendix A
[3] ibid, 54.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Ordinary 12C, June 23, 2013

“The Blessing of Becoming Undone”

Psalm 42
I Kings 19:1-15a

Right before our text today, the prophet Elijah stages one of the greatest public spectacles ever to demonstrate YHWH’s power versus the formidable and popular god, Ba’al.  This scene has it all – smoke, water, fire, blood – all witnessed by a cast of what seems to be thousands.  As you may recall from our text last week, Ba’al is the god that Queen Jezebel brought with her from Phoenicia and it was Ba’al and his adherents that Elijah spends most of his time battling in First Kings.  Two alters are set up on Mt. Carmel, one for the 450 prophets of Ba’al and one for YHWH’s prophet, Eiljah.  At high noon, Ba’al’s prophets begin wailing for Ba’al to bring down fire for the burnt offering.  They cry, they plead, they dance around the alter.  Eventually they become so frenzied, they begin to cut themselves but…nothing.  Ba’al is silent.   Then Elijah calls down YHWH and the whole place goes up in flames, instantly.  YHWH comes through.  It’s not even close.

What follows is quite extraordinary and also kind of horrible.  Everyone in the crowd falls on their faces, and confirms that YHWH is indeed the true God.  As if to put an end to the rivalry once and for all, Elijah tells the crowd to seize the prophets of Ba’al and Elijah then proceeds to slaughter them all with a sword.  All 450.  Every single one of them.   It’s a bloody scene to be sure, but it’s also a triumphant moment for Elijah. 

That disturbing scene of bloody mayhem is the background of our text for today.  Let us now listen for what the Spirit is saying to the Church in these ancient words from 1Kings 19.

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” 3Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. 4But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” 5Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. 7The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” 8He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.

9At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 11He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 15Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.

Let us begin with prayer:  Holy God, guide us by your Word and Spirit, that in your light we may see light, in your truth find freedom, and in your will discover your peace.  Through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

So Jezebel gets the word from her husband the king about the blood bath that has taken place up on Mt. Carmel.  After hearing that Elijah has killed 450 of Ba’al’s prophets, Jezebel puts a contract out on this murderous prophet, Elijah.   And once Elijah gets word of the plot, Elijah takes off.  Unlike modern fugitives, Elijah doesn’t have the luxury of going into a witness protection program.  He can’t jump in a car or get on a plane to South America.  Elijah has no choice but to take off on foot.

Elijah runs away as quickly as he can, but after just a couple days, he is tapped out.  Fear and anxiety catch up with him and finally overwhelm him.  And it is no ordinary fear and anxiety that Elijah experiences.  It is a paralyzing kind of fear that convinces him he is completely alone, he has completely failed, and that, all things considered, it is better that Elijah die out there in the wilderness, under that solitary broom tree. 

To put it mildly, Elijah has become unglued.  He is certain that he is the last prophet for YHWH standing.  “I alone am left,” says Elijah, “and they – Jezebel, Ahab, and the rest – are seeking my life to take it away.”  All that’s left for Elijah seems to be pure, unadulterated terror. 

I think it is kind of strange and interesting how Elijah’s demeanor has so utterly changed since he stood up so bravely to all the prophets of Ba’al and confidently called upon YHWH to rein down fire on the alter.  This is a very different Elijah than the one who led the crowd in the slaying of Ba’al’s prophets.  Elijah’s prophetic confidence and resolve are nowhere to be found.   A bigger than life presence has been utterly deflated in the face of Jezebel’s threat and in this wild desert space.

Why the change in Elijah?  I don’t know.  Maybe he was traumatized by the terrible bloody contest on Mount Carmel.  Even when things go exactly as you want them to go and you get exactly the result you want, there can be a terrible vacuum afterward.  All that focus.  All that energy.  Now that the goal is accomplished, what do you do? 

I don’t know why it happened, but Elijah is clearly undone in this text.  And I think it is the “undoneness” of the prophet that invites us into this text. We do not often find ourselves locked in mortal combat with false gods on moutaintops.  But we know wilderness doubts.  How often do all of us stand in a similar place of despair? 

I know that many of you would say that you know too well what it feels like to stand in the place where Elijah is standing.  You have been in the wilderness far too often and for far too long.  You have been in that dark, frightening place where it is so tempting to just shrivel up and give up.  Like Elijah, it may be difficult for us to see the sense in even trying anymore.

 After all, Elijah had pulled off this spectacular demonstration of YHWH’s power and knocked off a significant number of Ba’al’s army and where did it get Elijah?  Ahab is still king, Jezebel is still scheming and Elijah is on the run, all alone, the last faithful prophet standing.  At least that is how it feels to Elijah.  And very often that is how life feels for us.  How awful it is to feel that despite our best efforts, we are complete failures.  And worst of all is the absolute conviction that we are absolutely alone.

Elijah is exhausted as he crumples into a heap under that broom tree.  Within moments, he falls asleep but just as quickly as he nods off there is a tap-tap-tap on his shoulder.  It is the tap of someone – an angel -- waking him up and telling him to eat.  It isn’t much of a meal – just a small cake and a jar of water.  But.  It is enough.  Enough to live on.  Enough not to die. 

But Elijah is so tired, he falls back to sleep again.  But the angel won’t let him continue sleeping.  Tap-tap-tap.  Another small cake and another small jar of water.  Again, not very much.  But it is enough.  Enough to get Elijah back on his feet and send him on a forty day and forty night journey to Horeb – also known as Mt. Sinai – where another prophet prone to discouragement and undoneness encountered YHWH.  Like Elijah, Moses also was prone to despair.  Like Elijah, Moses was depressed enough by what seemed to be a useless futile endeavor that Moses also asked God to let him die.  Like Elijah, Moses frequently felt like a failure and he felt alone.

But it is at Mt. Horab that Elijah that hears the voice of God.  “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 

And in response, Elijah tells God how hard he has worked, how faithful he had been, and how somehow it has all gone wrong.  That no matter what Elijah does, the royal leadership in Israel is still corrupt, the people still prone to idol worship and the work of YHWH is incomplete. 

God listens to all of that, then tells Elijah to go up to the top of the mountain.  And wait for the Lord to pass by.

And then we have this wonderfully poetic vision of what Elijah experiences on the mountaintop:
Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but despite Elijah’s expectations…the Lord was not in the wind…
And after the wind an earthquake, but despite Elijah’s expectations… the Lord was not in the earthquake;
And after the earthquake a fire, but despite Elijah’s expectations, the Lord was not in the fire
And after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 

And that is the sound of YHWH.  And that kind of silence is, I think, what undoes all of us.  Not the wilderness, but the silence in the wilderness.  “The sheer silence” as it is translated in the NRSV.  “The still small voice” is how the King James version translates it.  And the original Hebrew translates “a sound of fine silence.”  

Whatever way in which you experience wilderness in your own life, I can tell you three things about it:
1.  It wasn’t your idea to go there. 
2.  You are not in control there; control is an illusion.
3.  Whatever scary noises you hear in the wilderness, there is one sound that always seems to be missing and that is the voice of God.  Which makes sense.  It wouldn’t seem like wilderness, would it, if only you could hear something like a holy voice telling you that everything is going to be all right.  A holy voice telling you that you are not alone.  A holy voice telling you that you are here for a reason and exactly what that reason is.  It is the silence that undoes us. [1]

The hardest thing to believe about our wilderness experiences is that they have anything to do with God at all.  It always feels like God has vanished.  But as much as we would like to avoid it, the wilderness is very often where we find God.  In fact, according to scripture, it is in the wilderness where God does some of God’s best work. 

The problem I think we often have in the wilderness is that we are so anxious to get out of it, so unnerved by the sheer silence, that we forget that the same Spirit that drove us there is the only Spirit that will get us out.  Our strongest temptation is to think we have to figure the way out ourselves, that it is all up to us.  We frantically try to create our own resources of grace – an idol here, a self-help book there, a golden calf, take your pick, any psychic salve will do.  We grow impatient waiting for the resources of divine grace which specialize in making the impossible possible.  We think we have to go it alone, just like Elijah.[2]

I will tell you this right now.  I hate feeling helpless.  It is difficult for me to accept the fact that the scripture shows us time and time again that it is in our very helplessness that we are most powerful.  Because when we are helpless – I mean really-up-to-our-eyeballs-back-against-the-wall-helpless -- that is when we have no choice but to accept God’s care instead of imagining we have to do it on our own.  I hate it, but I also know it’s the greatest blessing of our lives to receive God’s grace.   It is a blessing to become as undone as Elijah in the wilderness and really have to wrestle with that question YHWH asks Elijah that I think is really the central point in this text:

“What are you doing here?”

Sometimes I think I know exactly where I am going and I welcome the fire, the earthquake, and the wind.  But when I am frightened, tired and uncertain about everything except the fact I have failed miserably – that’s when I need the silence, the small cake, the jug of water.  I need the sheer silence to realize that this isn’t my work to do alone, but God’s work for me to share.   It is in that silence, God provides what we need.  

I’ve spoken of my friend and colleague, Rev. Eugene Blackwell before.  Eugene entered ministry in 2005 as pastor of the Bethesda U.P. Church in Homewood, a struggling African American congregation in one of Pittsburgh poorest neighborhoods.  When I graduated from seminary, I still had a year of candidacy before I could receive a call so, at the suggestion of my pastor, I began working with Eugene.  On the first day I met Eugene, he spoke of his sense of call to the neighborhood, to this wilderness of gang bangers and drug dealers, to the families of young men who had been murdered and to the brothers and sisters who hung out on street corners with nothing to do, and no hope for the future in the boarded up storefronts and abandoned houses.  For more than a year, he and I struggled together to articulate his vision for grant proposals and presentations that finally resulted in a new church development – House of Manna. 

But Eugene’s vision for Homewood wasn’t only about a new church.  Eugene’s vision was to participate in God’s work of life-giving transformation in a community riddled with the false idols of poverty, drugs and despair. 

This week, Eugene’s vision from God finally came one giant step closer to realization in the groundbreaking of a center in Homewood that will be home to a non-profit group called Homewood Renaissance.  An abandoned Family Dollar store in the neighborhood will be refashioned into a community center, a 300-seat sanctuary for House of Manna, offices, classrooms, meeting space, a kitchen and four storefronts, one of which will be a business incubator that will help Homewood’s young people learn to start their own small businesses.   Dollar Bank, who owned the foreclosed Family Dollar building worth $2 million donated it outright to Eugene’s group.  The Heinz Endowments are kicking in another $700,000 for the renovation of the building.

All of this just blows me away because I know this is exactly the prophetic vision Eugene received from God more than 7 years ago.  Getting to this point took Eugene and his family a lot longer than 40 days.  It took forever.  Eugene endured a lot of silence and doubt as he struggled to launch House of Manna.

But Eugene and his wife Dina and their kids stuck it out in a wilderness otherwise known as Homewood.  They raised their young family in the midst of the people God called them to live among and minister to in the community.  They kept the faith in a neighborhood that just seems to scream God-forsaken when you look at it.  God kept Eugene and his family fed, kept them sustained, and sent more laborers to the vineyard over the years than I think even Eugene ever imagined.

Trusting the slow work of God is never an easy or pain-free experience.  Leaning into the sheer silence of God tests our patience and challenges our faith like nothing else.  We may prefer that God’s transformation happen in awe-inspiring events like Mt. Carmel – I know I wish that sometimes.  But transformation happens over time, sometimes a long time, through the inter-workings of many individuals performing small acts of kindness and love.

Can we trust that? Can we trust that God will not only provide sustenance for the journey, but also exceed our expectations on the way?  How has God already exceeded expectations – in this church, in this community, in your life?  I am certain that when we share those stories with one another, we are feeding each other.  Our testimonies of God’s grace are like manna from heaven.  Enough to sustain and encourage us right here, where we are, even in the wilderness.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Taylor, Barbara Brown.  “Four Stops in the Wilderness.”  Journal for Preachers.
[2] Eppehimer, Tevor, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, p.150. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Ordinary 11C, June 16, 2013

Other Peoples’ Vineyards

Luke 7:36-50
1 Kings 21:1-21a

Let us hear what the Spirit is saying to the church in these ancient words:
Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. 2And Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.” 3But Naboth said to Ahab, “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” 4Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him; for he had said, “I will not give you my ancestral inheritance.” He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.
5His wife Jezebel came to him and said, “Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?” 6He said to her, “Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, ‘Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it’; but he answered, ‘I will not give you my vineyard.’” 7His wife Jezebel said to him, “Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.” 8So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. 9She wrote in the letters, “Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; 10seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, ‘You have cursed God and the king.’ Then take him out, and stone him to death.” 11The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. Just as it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, 12they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. 13The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, “Naboth cursed God and the king.” So they took him outside the city, and stoned him to death. 14Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, “Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.” 15As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, “Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead.” 16As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.
17Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: 18Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. 19You shall say to him, “Thus says the Lord: Have you killed, and also taken possession?” You shall say to him, “Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.” 20Ahab said to Elijah, “Have you found me, O my enemy?” He answered, “I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, 21I will bring disaster on you; I will consume you, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel;

Like last year, the lectionary this summer offers up a treasure trove of texts from the Old Testament which gives us an opportunity to really dive into the richness of these stories, many of which are not given a lot of attention in the Christian church.  The season begins with stories about the prophet Elijah from 1st and 2nd Kings.  Last week we heard about Elijah and the widow and how the prophet healed her son.  Elijah plays a smaller role in today’s text, but he’s still there, always a thorn in the royal side of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel.

The story today about Naboth’s vineyard is sort of an odd little tale tucked into the pages of 1st Kings, wedged between some pretty dramatic stories about life and death showdowns between Ba’al and YHWH complete with lightening bolts.   This strange tale about an ordinary Israelite turning down the request of mighty King Ahab almost seems deliberately veiled.  A lot of commentators doubt the historical veracity of the story, but nobody questions that this text helps us in understanding the more epic saga of Israel’s rise and collapse.  This little story about Naboth and Ahab and Jezebel tells us a lot.  About power.  About the misuse of power. 

This story prompts us to remember yet again what God said about Israel having a human king.  As you may recall, God said it was a really bad idea.  In fact, Samuel tried to talk the people of Israel out of it.  But no, they really wanted a king.  In 1st Samuel we read, “But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, ‘No! but we are determined to have a king over us, 20so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.’ 21When Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. 22The Lord said to Samuel, ‘Listen to their voice and set a king over them.’ (1 Samuel 8:19-22).  You can almost hear the resignation in YHWH’s voice.  “So the people want a king?  Ok.  They can have a king.  But don’t blame me when it all falls apart.”

So Israel got what it wanted despite Samuel and God’s objections.  Israel wanted to be one of the cool kids, like the other nations, and it didn’t take very long for it to become obvious to everyone who was paying attention that Israel relying on a human king for their governance instead of YHWH was a terrible plan. 

And today we meet one of the worst.  The notorious King Ahab married to the equally notorious Queen Jezebel.  Ahab was quite the character.  Despite having the kind of power and comfort that your average Israelite could only dream about, King Ahab decided that his next door neighbor in Jezreel, Naboth, was sitting upon a particularly lovely vineyard.  It was exactly the kind of backyard accessory that King Ahab wanted for his new vacation home, so one day he takes a stroll over to Naboth’s house to make a deal with him.  And Ahab makes what seems like a completely reasonable offer to Naboth.  Ahab offers Naboth a comparable vineyard across town or the cash value of the property. 

But the offer does not seem reasonable to Naboth.  The hapless neighbor refuses to cut a deal with the king because  Naboth is a faithful Israelite.  He knows that the vineyard cannot be sold, traded or monetized; it is Naboth’s ancestral inheritance entrusted by YHWH to Naboth’s care until Naboth passes it down to his sons.  No matter how much money the king offers, or how much the better the new vineyard he might receive in trade, Naboth won’t sell.  Naboth really CAN’T sell the vineyard.  The deed to Naboth’s vineyard belongs to YHWH. 

Even though the Law is on his side in this matter, Naboth must be feeling incredibly vulnerable in front of the king.  Ahab was a tough and ruthless leader, as well as an incredibly effective one.  In our time especially, those qualities – toughness, ruthlessness and effectiveness -- seem to go together for most leaders. 

Even Ahab’s marriage to Jezebel was a carefully crafted, political alliance.  This was no sizzling love match between a dashing king and a bewitching foreigner.  Jezebel was from Tyre and the oldest daughter of the Phoenician king.  The union between Ahab and Jezebel provided both Israel and Phoenicia with something both countries needed -- military protection from common enemies like Syria and Assyria, as well access to very valuable trade routes. 

From a purely political, results-oriented perspective, Ahab is powerful.  And Naboth is a nobody.   But Naboth stands firm.  The vineyard the king wants so badly is not for sale.  So what does the king do in the face of Naboth’s “no?”

He goes home and sulks.  Ahab pouts.  He gets into bed and refuses to eat.  It would all be sort of comical if what happens next wasn’t so tragic.  Jezebel -- the idol-worshipping foreigner who is certainly no angel, but probably not as evil as her reputation has made her out to be – Jezebel takes one look at the sniveling lump in the bed where a king used to be and says, “Ok.  I’ll go and get you your vineyard, goofball. Go eat something and cheer up.”

And with that, Jezebel sets into motion a devious plan in which Naboth is unjustly accused and ends up being stoned to death by a kangaroo court rigged up by Jezebel, two “scoundrels” and a bunch of cooperative “men.”  When Naboth is dead, Jezebel tells Ahab that he can go take possession of the vineyard he wanted so badly.

But before the king can take possession of the land, the prophet Elijah appears and proclaims: “Thus says the Lord: You have killed, and also taken possession!” Elijah doesn't say any more about the details of Ahab’s crime and he quotes God's impending punishment.  But what is important to Elijah is that “you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord.”  

For Jezebel, coming from the traditions of Tyre and Sidon, taking the land wasn’t even a question in her mind.  Phoenicians believed that land was just a commodity and could be bought, sold and stolen by anybody, particularly people with power. Archeological findings in the region have found that wealthy merchant families in Tyre and Sidon (and their Israelite wealthy wannabes) had been dispossessing north Israel peasants from their land for at least a generation leading up to the time of the marriage of Princess Jezebel to King Ahab.[1] For Jezebel, getting what you want when you want it, even using violent means to get it, is nothing new.

But, Ahab is confronted by Elijah because Ahab actually knows what is going on with Naboth’s rejection of this real estate deal.  Ahab is no dummy.  He understands Yahwistic faith that says one cannot conceive of stealing land from someone else because everyone is part of the same family and created by the same God. On the other hand, his wife Jezebel cannot conceive of not taking it, because in her tradition, we are not the same.

It is easy, isn’t it, to vilify Ahab and Jezebel.  But it seems that every single time we are tempted to draw very distinct lines of who’s good and who’s bad, and imagine we stand with the victim instead of the villains -- we may want to think again. 

And perhaps we ought to listen a little more closely to Elijah and wonder – how have we sold ourselves to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord? In a capitalistic society where we believe we are entitled to all that we can purchase, is there a limit to the reach of our money?  In other words, just because we can afford it, is it ours to rightfully acquire?  And what are the limits to our use of what we think we own?

Think about the clothing we buy.  We’ve heard numerous reports over the past several months about factory fires in Bangladesh which killed hundreds of people, mostly women, who worked in dangerous, deplorable conditions at poverty wages to produce clothing sold by retailers like Walmart and Sears and even Disney.   You and I have a perfect right to buy inexpensive clothing, but in doing so are we making someone’s vineyard into our vegetable garden?

A lot of people have chosen to boycott clothing from a specific region because the clothing was being made by young girls in slave like conditions.  Reports say that some of these sweat shops have been closed because of the boycott. The girls making clothes lost their job at the factory and turned to prostitution, their only other option.  So is not buying clothes from certain regions evil in the sight of the Lord? 

A couple of months ago, a group of ministers and elders from Pittsburgh Presbytery completed a study about gas fracking and whether it was a faithful thing for churches to lease their land to the gas companies.  At the last presbytery meeting, the study group recommended that more time be given to study the issue and that the presbytery should wait for more information about the long-term health risks that fracking might pose to community water supplies and the health of people who live near these sites. The data isn’t absolutely clear yet, so the study group said, let’s wait and see how the science plays out.

The churches sitting on natural gas reserves known as Marcellus Shale stand to make significant money if they allow drilling on their property.  And that’s not a bad thing, right?  That money can be used by the churches for mission and other good works.  Church leaders and pastors stood up at the presbytery meeting arguing that churches should be allowed to make these deals with the gas companies because, after all, “…the fracking is going to happen no matter what we do.  We can’t stop it.  Why shouldn’t churches – especially small churches -- reap the benefits? Why not make these deals with the gas companies if it will help struggling churches?”

None of these issues are simple and none of the answers are clear cut.  

I love this story from 1 Kings because it is the perfect story to remember when we wonder why things fall apart.  When things go wrong, we can almost always trace it back to a decision we made in the heat of wanting more than we have for no good reason beyond the fact that we want it.   Our downfall usually has less to do with an enemy that has wronged us and more to do with forgetting who we are and whose we are.  How often do we sell ourselves, our very souls to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord? How often do we judge others for the very thing we are guilty of ourselves?  I can tell you the answer – a lot.

Jezebel, of course, has lived on in the cultural imagination as a symbol of a brazen, shameless hussy, although the text never actually testifies to her being unfaithful to her husband.  She was who she was, as flawed as the kings of Israel.  Elijah’s prophecy about Jezebel coming to a bad end eventually comes true.  When Ahab dies in battle and Jezebel’s son assumes the throne, there is a revolt.  Her son’s general kills the Jezebel’s son and soon he is on his way to kill Jezebel.  Which he does by having her thrown out a window.  Jezebel’s body is left to be trampled by the horses and eaten by dogs. 

And we may say good riddance.  That’s certainly how church interpreters throughout the millennia have considered Jezebel’s death.  Good riddance to a very bad, bad woman.  Nobody, least of all the church, seems to have a good word for Jezebel.

But let us consider her in the light of our gospel story for today.  Jesus is invited to have dinner at the home of a Pharisee.  If you asked the Pharisee about Jezebel, he would have most likely given you the party line.  Jezebel was trash, a harlot, an outsider, a no-account, no-good hussy.  In other words – a terrible sinner – not unlike the woman who barges into the middle of dinner at the Pharisee’s home.

I wonder if the compilers of the lectionary have the same sort of imagination I have when reading these two stories side by side.  In my imagining of this story, I imagine this woman as perhaps the great, great, great – add a lot of greats there – granddaughter of Jezebel.  The sins of the notorious queen have endured and been passed down for generations -- as significant sins of guilt, shame and blame often do in families. Vineyards come and go, family homes are sold off and forgotten.  But the sins of the father?  The sins of the mother?  Those are legacies that stick.  Every family has them and they can do real damage.

But this woman comes to Jesus filled with gratitude and joy because, maybe for the first time in her life, she has been accepted, understood and most of all, forgiven.  And when she feels that release of guilt and shame, she weeps, her tears running down her cheeks and onto Jesus’ feet.  She dries the tears with her long, dark hair and kisses his feet again and again.  She anoints Jesus’ feet with ointment from a beautiful, alabaster jar that was given to her long ago by her grandmother or great- grandmother.  Perhaps this woman at Jesus’ feet is the first woman in her family who have ever experienced the lightness that comes in seeing yourself as beloved.

Jesus sees her, who she is, what she has endured, her shame, her guilt, her anguish and her humiliation.  But none of that matters now.  This woman has experienced the radical forgiveness of Jesus.  And she cannot stop worshipping the one who has made her whole.  Her exuberance is almost embarrassing. 

The only person in the room not freaking out about the woman is Jesus.  He says, “Do you see this woman...her sins, which were many, have been forgiven.  And hence, she has shown great love.”

The forgiveness we receive from Jesus calls us to become our better selves, marked with crazy grateful tears instead of guilt and shame for what we have done and left undone.  We do not always have the right answer and we will often trespass against the people who deserve our greatest love.  But even Ahabs and Jezebels like us can be redeemed if we trust the One who forgives even what seems to us unforgivable. 

Thanks be to God.  Amen.


Monday, June 10, 2013

Ordinary Time 10C, June 9, 2013

Guest Preacher:
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Executive and General Minister
Pittsburgh Presbytery

When all Hope is Gone 

1 Kings 17:8-24 
8 Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, 9 “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” 10 So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” 11 As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” 12 But she said, “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”13 Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. 14 For thus says the LORD the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth.” 15 She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16 The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah. 
17 After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. 18 She then said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” 19 But he said to her, “Give me your son.” He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. 20 He cried out to the LORD, “O LORD my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” 21 Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the LORD, “O LORD my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” 
22 The LORD listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. 23 Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.” 24 So the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.” 

Luke 7:11-17 
11 Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 12 As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. 13 When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14 Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” 
15 The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 16 Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!”17 This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country. 

Over the past ten days, Pittsburgh has experienced a classic case of crashing hopes, as its beloved Penguins moved from being favorites to go to the Stanley Cup finals to elimination by the nefarious Bruins of Boston. Going into the series with the Bruins, Pittsburghers almost swaggered with optimism, but the swaggering stopped after the first game. Still, fans and local sports journalists were hopeful for a quick reversal of fortune’s negative turn. A disastrous second game all but snuffed out hope among most of our fans and media, with only the players themselves expressing real hope for winning the series. After a hard-fought multiple-overtime third game finally ended in Boston’s favor, even the players’ tone changed – all they dared hope now was for a single win, but of course one at a time, they could still win all four. A small sliver of hope still remained. But we all know the rest of the story… 

Hope for the widow of Zarephath was even more slender, as our Bible story unfolds. She had been victimized repeatedly, first by the death of her husband, leaving her to raise their son alone, then by the depredations of a drought that had ravaged the region for three brutal years. Moreover, she was outside the realm of God’s chosen people, a Gentile from the region of Tyre and Sidon, which was considered among God’s people in the same category as Sodom and Gomorrah. Even though she had none of the benefits of being among God’s chosen people, she shared in their punishment when God declared drought on the land in response to their persistent idolatry of the things enjoyed by their surrounding culture. 

Gentiles from that region are shown to be reached by God’s mercy in other parts of the Bible. In the days of the early church, Cornelius, a Roman centurion, lived near there, and called upon God to intervene in his life. During the time of Jesus’ ministry, a woman from that area had a sick daughter, and cried out to him for help. In both cases, after Peter and Jesus dealt with some serious wrinkles related to their being Gentiles, they received the blessing from God they sought. 

But the Zarephath widow asked God for nothing. She had abandoned all hope, and had resigned herself to the fate that she and her son would soon starve to death because all their resources had been exhausted. As if losing her husband’s support were not enough – the drought added only further to her misery. She was out gathering wood for one last fire to cook their final meal, when she ran into the guy who was at the top of the Most Wanted list down at the post office – Elijah, the guy who prophesied the drought into existence three years earlier. 

And there she came into her destiny as God’s anonymous servant. God had told Elijah, “I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.” So Elijah asked her first for a drink, which she was glad to provide, until he added, “And bring me, please, a piece of bread.” He asked nicely, didn’t he? But she had none to give. “As surely as the Lord your God lives, I don’t have any bread,” she replied. Notice the language – “The Lord your God.” She claimed neither to know nor to serve this God. Yet God claimed to have directed her to feed Elijah. That’s often how God uses us – we have no idea that what we’re doing is prompted by God, but in doing the right thing, we may indeed be instruments of the Almighty without knowing it. 

I used to think that the point of the story was that because she fed Elijah first, God blessed her with a bottomless supply of oil and flour. She got something because she gave something. I’ve heard preachers wax eloquent on that idea – give the little you have to the Lord (typically, that means give it to the preacher), and the Lord will reward you with more than you gave. But that’s not what the text says. According to the text, her provision for herself and her son came not as a consequence, but as an accompaniment to her gift to Elijah. As she went home to bake her last loaf, Elijah said in essence, “You’ll find enough in your pantry to make two loaves, one for me and one for you – and it will keep being that way for as long as this drought lasts.” 

The lesson is not that we should give in order to be rewarded, but that when we give to those in need, we are not depleted. That’s how it is with sharing spiritual gifts – we give to others what they need, and find that in so doing we lose nothing, because what we are giving comes from God’s storehouse rather than from our own pantry. 

That would be a nice end to the story – but there’s more. Not long afterward, the widow’s son fell ill and died. She bitterly accused Elijah of raising her hopes falsely by providing food to keep them alive, only for the boy to die of a subsequent illness. I can identify with her – I’d rather never have had my hopes raised at all, than to have them raised only to be dashed. This is how Jesus’ disciples felt at his crucifixion – “Jesus, you raised our hopes for deliverance, only to let them be crushed by letting yourself get falsely arrested and executed. We know you could have escaped easily – why did you raise our hopes only to surrender yourself to death?” 

Elijah didn’t scold the widow, but turned her distress into prayer. The text says he “cried out to the Lord” that the boy would be brought back to life. God answered his prayer, and the boy was revived. It seemed all hope was gone, but Elijah refused to give up. The boy’s mother had given up, but Elijah did not. 

That’s often how it works with hope and prayer – when we see no hope whatsoever, God brings someone our way to supply hope where we have none. We may believe praying is useless, but they pray anyway. We see no point in trying yet again to do something at which we have failed, but they encourage us not to give up. One of the main reasons we need each other is that each and every one of us sometimes loses hope, and were it not for others stepping in to carry hope on our behalf, we’d simply give up. 

Our Gospel story sounds some very similar themes – a widow loses her son, her hope is gone, and she has no faith for God to intervene. Still, Jesus raises up her son, even though she didn’t ask him to. She is not a Gentile like the Zarephath widow, but we have no indication of any piety on her part. God blesses her not because of who she is or what she has done, but simply because Jesus infuses his hope into her situation when she has none. 

The parallels between the two stories are obvious enough. Both are part of a small collection of resuscitation stories scattered through the Bible. In each case, resuscitation happens to highly unlikely folk, people without faith or power or wealth. They do nothing to deserve a second chance at life, yet it is given to them. 

There is a raft of current books written by people who have had what we call “near death experiences,” detailing what they experienced during the time they were declared clinically dead. Many of them state that they were not particularly pious before their near-death experiences. God blesses us with second chances, not because we have earned them, but simply because God is good. That’s just how it was with both of the widows in our readings. 

These stories confirm what we learn definitively through the death and resurrection of Jesus – death is not the end for us! The widows from Zarephath and Nain didn’t know this – all they knew was that they had been cut off from their last true hope. Their stories remind us that our hope rests not on how advanced our faith may be, but solely on how good God is. 

Frankly, I am prone to skepticism when I read people’s accounts of what they experienced when they were declared clinically dead. We certainly can’t build any good theology on such anecdotes. But one thing I have learned over my years as a pastor, as I have kept vigil with people as they breathed their last – the line between life and death is nowhere near as clean as you see on the heart monitor, which is either pulsating or flat. I’ll never forget when I prayed for Frank as his heart fluttered its final feeble beats – I prayed aloud, with his family beside us, holding Frank’s hand as I did so. Frank had been comatose for a couple of days, utterly unresponsive to anyone or anything. As I prayed for him in his dying moment, long after he had uttered his last words, I closed with my customary “Amen,” whereupon he suddenly gripped my hand with a vise grip and fairly shouted, “Amen!” Then he was gone. 

As I said earlier, I can be quite the skeptic when I read stories about purported experiences of people while they were clinically dead. But here’s one I can’t deny, because it happened to someone I know, and I was there. Margi was a middle school teen in the church I served. Her Granddad, to whom she was very close, lay dying in the hospital, and she kept nearly constant vigil with him. But she had to go to a dental appointment to get some work done, so she left his bedside and headed to the dentist. She was deathly afraid of needles, so she opted to be put under general anesthesia during the procedure. In the middle of her procedure, she suddenly awakened, sat bolt upright, and said, “Granddad just came by to tell me not to worry, everything is fine.” Much relieved, she went promptly back under, until the dentist finished with her. When she awakened, she called her parents to ask about Granddad, and sure enough, he died at precisely the moment she sat up and said he had come by to see her. 

Again, we can’t build theology on such experiences. But one thing we can take away is this – it is never too late for hope. Death itself is not the end of Christian hope. We preach a risen Lord, and hope that we too shall share in his resurrection, somehow. In the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, the funeral service is called “A Service of Witness to the Resurrection.” Its focus is on our hope that, because Jesus conquered death, death is not the final word for us

Some folk look on churches whose numbers have dwindled, whose glory days seem to lie somewhere in the past, and pronounce them to be “dying.” It’s getting harder and harder for those who remain to pay all the bills, and it’s just a matter of time before they’ll have to close their doors. At least, so say those who have abandoned hope. But just when all hope seems gone, God sends someone along with a vision for new life. The congregation’s future may not look like its past, but God isn’t done with it – far from it! The question is not whether the church will live or die, but what will be the nature of its life in the years ahead. 

That how the Lord works: to send us someone who stirs up our hope just when all hope seems gone. The Penguins’ hopes for a Stanley Cup may be gone for now, but they will revive in a few months. If that’s true for something as mundane as a hockey team, how much more true is it that for the church of Jesus Christ in the face of temporary setbacks! 
Each of us will eventually die, just as those boys eventually did whose lives had been restored to their widowed mothers. But even when we die, that will not be the end. This is the Christian hope, sealed in the resurrection of Jesus. It is as sure and dependable as God’s Word itself – but sometimes we need someone to help remind us of it. Thank God, that just when we need it most, God sends us just whom we need to help restore our hope in the Lord. To God be all the glory and thanks, now and forever! Amen. 

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Memorial Service -- June 9, 2013

B.J. Robertson

Romans 8:31-39

31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.* 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ 
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.

What then are we to say about these things?  What to say indeed.

One of the challenges in putting together an obituary or meditation for someone who lived as long and as fully as B.J. is that you are inevitably going to miss something important.  Even B.J.’s dear cousin Linda confessed that she kept B.J.’s newspaper obituary deliberately short as she was pretty certain she’d miss something significant if she tried to list all of B.J.’s organizations and activities. 

I know how Linda feels.  I feel entirely inadequate as I approach the task of meditating on the life and faith and witness of our beloved B.J.  I am sure that everyone here this afternoon had a very particular way of knowing her.  B.J. played such a meaningful role in the lives of so many people. As a volunteer. Board member.  Teacher.  Choir member.  Quilter.  Neighbor.  Cousin.  Aunt.  Friend.  The long list of her accomplishments, activities and relationships is reflective of an active and curious mind that never stopped learning and a generous heart that never stopped giving to her community.  And already, I’m certain that I’m leaving something important out.

I will, however, boldly go on to speak about B.J. because her life had such rich meaning beyond what an ordinary resume or lengthy obituary can possibly capture.

When I think about B.J., the image that comes to mind is that of a precious gem – a diamond -- with a multitude of endlessly gorgeous facets, all of which reflect and throw out incredible, dazzling light on all of us who were fortunate to be caught in B.J.’s unique sparkle.  B.J. was one of those people who just shimmered, wasn't she?

But today, in this place, in this particular moment, what matters most is that we name out loud the source of B.J.’s extraordinary light.  And that task is a simple one.   The wellspring of all that B.J. was and did and meant to all of us was her deep and abiding trust in Jesus Christ who was and is her Lord and Savior.  If anyone ever tried to faithfully be Christ’s light in the world, it was B.J.  And absolutely nothing about her faith was hidden.  She did not hide a single God-given gift under a bushel basket.  The Christ-light in B.J. shined for everyone.  With perpetual humility and grace, B.J. gave all the glory to the Christian witness of her family and to God the Father in heaven.   B.J. was blessed beyond measure, she knew it, and she never stopped thanking God for every single one of those blessings.

For all of these reasons and more, a person like B.J. is the kind of person everyone wants to be around.  A person like B.J. is the kind of person you want to call when you have been utterly wiped out by life and are standing in the need of prayer, which is why B.J.’s number was the first phone number on the church’s prayer chain.   A person like B.J. is the kind of person you want in your Bible study because her faith is mature and deep enough to acknowledge that there’s always something more for us to discover about ourselves and about God in scripture.  A person like B.J. is the sort of person who makes the world a better place simply by her presence, which is why we are all sitting here today with a big old B.J. shaped hole in our hearts and the awareness that we are all better people for having known her.

So to consider B.J. a rare and cherished gem is not overstatement.  She was all of that and so much more.

The apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, ““I am convinced 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.”  As B.J. was united with Christ in her baptism, so too has she risen with Christ.  She has been united with Christ and with all the saints who have gone before her.  Her grandparents and her parents and her sister.  And with all the saints of this church whom she loved well for more than 9 decades.   She has been received into the presence of Almighty God, and as God’s child she will dwell with her heavenly forever.

The problem is that we are not exactly certain how to fill the space that B.J. left behind here on earth. Who on earth can do that?

I remember my first Christmas here at Emsworth -- my first Christmas as a new minister.  After all the work of Advent and the anxiety of leading a Christmas Eve service on a Saturday night, I was feeling pretty sorry for myself about having to get up and lead worship on Christmas Day.  And then, B.J. came into my office and gave me a copy of a poem she thought I might like.  I didn’t know it then, but the poem was written by one of my theological heroes, Howard Thurman and this is how it reads:

When the song of the angels is stilled,

when the star in the sky is gone,

when the kings and princes are home,

when the shepherds are back with their flocks,

the work of Christmas begins:

to find the lost,

to heal the broken,

to feed the hungry,

to release the prisoner,

to rebuild the nations,

to bring peace among the people,

to make music in the heart

B.J. knew better than anyone that being a Christian means doing the work of Christmas by actively engaging in the mission of Jesus Christ.  Hers was a lively faith thoughtfully lived out with warmth and love.  She walked the talk better than almost anyone I’ve ever known.  I’m sure many here today would say exactly the same of her. 

I know it's true, because one of you told me about B.J.’s skillful work with young children struggling to learn to read and the great patience she showed in untangling the mysteries of language for each and every child lost in the confusing world of letters and words.  Another of you told me about B.J.’s extraordinarily low tolerance for gossip and how nobody dared to say an unkind word about anyone in B.J.’s presence because B.J. always chose goodness over meanness.  Kindness over controversy.  Peace over discord.  B.J. did not overlook the suffering of others or attempt to gloss over difficult situations.  Rather, B.J. directly engaged with people and their needs.  She was Christ-like in her desire to serve rather than be served.  And her example challenges us to do the same and be to others as B.J. was to us – the bearer of Christ’s light in the world. 

When we come to the Lord’s Table today, we enter into communion with all who have died and now live eternally with Christ.   We cannot come to this table without finding mystical union with all who are in Christ.  At this table we meet prophets and apostles.  At this table we meet great leaders of our faith like Augustine, Luther and Calvin.   Here we meet the ordinary men and women who poured their hearts into this church and this congregation.  Here we meet our parents, our grandparents, our great-grandparents, our children and our friends whom we still love and will always remember.  And at this table we meet Betty Jane Robertson,  a child of God and an ordinary saint who has left us to feast in glory with God forever and ever.

I know that B.J. is waiting to have communion with us today.  And if you listen closely, you can hear her and all of the saints that have gone before us encouraging us to follow in their footsteps of love and kindness and goodness and mercy.  To take on the work they have begun in Christ.   To finish our race with courage, empowered by our memories of their strength and love. Here at this table, we are lifted into the presence of the risen and ascended Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.  It is Christ who invites us to this table and it is Christ who sends us back out into the world to be light and salt.  For a struggling child learning to read.  A hurting friend.  A hungry neighbor.  A lonely shut in. 

Nothing can separate us from the love of God.  Not even death.  Thanks be to God.

With thanks to cellist, David Bennett who played both of these pieces during the service, as well as a beautiful medley of B.J.'s favorite hymns: