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Elijah’s Desperation & God’s Response

August 14, 2020

Elijah is having a bad day. Really a couple of bad days. But before that, he had a really good day. 

It had to do with allegiance to God and care for Israel. Israel is breaking covenant with God. Promise to God – stepping out of relationship with God. They have been influenced by the Canaanites who worship Baal. This god with a small g, Baal has some history and is thought of in two primary ways: a fertility god or a storm god. If we back up a chapter from today’s reading, we see Elijah with great confidence challenge King Ahab, his wife Jezebel, the prophets of Baal, and Baal himself. The outcome: the one true God show’s God’s power and “wins.” The prophets of Baal are killed. 

The outcome: Jezebel is really, really mad and sends word to Elijah that she is going to do to him what he did the prophets of Baal. Elijah, who had been more than a little taunting of Ahab and the prophets of Baal falls apart. We hear in the chapter, prior to our reading this morning that Elijah “was afraid; he got up and fled for his life”…he went into the wilderness, and he is utterly depressed, and he prays.

From the previous taunting of the prophets of Baal to his prayer in the wilderness, we see that Elijah is probably a pretty large personality. Pretty expressive. A deep feeler. He is sitting under a solitary tree and prays: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away life…”  perhaps something like this is going on in his heart and mind: That is it. I am tired. I am afraid. I am all done. Yes. I just saw you do miraculous things when I challenged the prophets of Baal. But now. Today, is a bad day. 

In dialing into Elijah’s well-being, I cannot help but think of where we are today in this pandemic. Rising cases, rising death numbers, schools on the verge of starting with various approaches. So much unknown. So much ongoing necessary restriction. 

I am tired. I am afraid. I am all done.

From our narrative today, we can take in actually, a lot about prayer. We can be human. We can express ourselves freely to God and it is ok. God can take it and God’s responsive. 

To Elijah’s prayer God sends an angel that literally feeds him. Then he comes to Horeb, where we begin our narrative today. Mount Horeb is where God gave Moses the 10 Commandments. 

We do not hear why Elijah chooses this place, maybe because it is where God spoke to Moses and the people of Israel? This is a place of meaningful encounter with God. Not as one person only, but as followers of God corporately.

Go. Elijah goes to a meaningful place, to him and to God’s people. He is under stress and this is how he copes…how do we cope?

God asks Elijah “what are you doing here?” God speaks to him. And God is the same today: God speaks to us. Because of Elijah’s history with God, this probably was not new, was even expected. 

Let us pause a moment in our today: What is our history with God like? What do we expect? Conversation in prayer?

We continue to glean about prayer as the narrative continues.

Elijah recounts to God. He does not even ask anything. He is just talking: “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts,” he says; “for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your alters, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away” Legitimate despair. In the midst of the gravity of all of this, what is a little humorous about this is that 6 verses back he wanted to die. Now he wants to live. We are fickle beings, aren’t we?

God’s response comes in two parts. First, an encounter. Second, a practical and generous solution. 

First, the encounter, the unexpected experience. 

Living Feely and Lightly

July 05, 2020

We have been on quite a challenging ride in our Matthew readings these last few weeks. Matthew’s gospel is interesting to ponder. 

It is speculated to have been written around A.D. 60 in Antioch to a Jewish audience. When we understand the location and timing of the writing along with the purpose of a Gospel it helps us as we read: Antioch was a trade center near water. It was culturally diverse and politically tense – the Romans officially began occupation of it in A.D. 64. Into this diversity of culture and tension politically Matthew writes to Jews about the good news of Jesus Christ – seeking to show who Jesus is as each gospel does to its particular audience at the time of its writing. 

What is the good news we hear today?

First, it is showing us that our God reveals God self to us. This is something we often hear. But today, there is a bit of a twist. Jesus says, “I thank you…because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned and have revealed them to infants.” Infants. Our God is so big and so unlimited – God reveals God’s self to all – no limits by our developmental or mental, emotional, or physical abilities. What good news. 

This passage also shows us good news about who God reveals God’s self to. Here, Jesus invites the weary and carriers of heavy burdens. Jesus does not invite those who just want to learn, those who are self-sufficient, but those that need and are dependent; kind of like the infants Jesus referred to earlier. 

The words here for weary and heavy laden have much imagery. Weary is struggle, toil physically – exertion leading to exhaustion. Burdened is like an overloaded beast of burden. This is to load up, to carry more than is intended.

The Jewish audience written to would be a people who are burdened with keeping the law, towing the line, living up to black and white expectations. Weary and heavy laden indeed. In real time they would be trying to understand what it means to follow Jesus in contrast to the bearing the weight of the law. 

Eugene Peterson in The Message, a bible translated into contemporary language provides this semantic for these familiar verses that help us understand the quandary of the Jewish person seeking to understand following Jesus:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Finding Life

June 21, 2020

We are in a new place following our Great 50 days of Easter – our color change helps us orient. We are in green time, referred to as ordinary time. But there is nothing ordinary about it. We have entered readings in Matthew and Romans that are challenging and perplexing – we have switched gears to following Jesus.

Last week in Romans we heard of what justification has done for us. Justification being a term referring to how God sees us. It is powerful. It is to be declared righteous. A play on the word helps us understand its meaning: justified. Just-as-if-I’d never sinned. We heard last week in Romans that through justification we have peace with God, we have access to God, God’s love is poured out into our hearts. How did we get this justification? Through Jesus Christ. When did we get it? When we were still sinners. 

God must love us a lot. 

As I ponder what we are like before this justification through Christ as we are before God it is hard to imagine. Have you ever accidentally taken a gulp of sour milk? There is an immediate reaction, detours the brain and you spit it out as fast as you can. 

Somehow, I think before justification, before God made us new and righteous, as sinners we probably were like sour milk in the mouth of God. But God did not spit us out, God kept loving us.

We took and take effort for God. But God loves us so much we heard last week: “God proves God’s love for us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us.” 

That is a lot. 

We have come today to the first half of Romans 6. We missed the 2nd half of Romans 5 that establishes that we are all sinners and God’s generosity toward us is a gift. A gift cannot be earned. A gift cannot be lost. 

This all sounds really great. 

Then today we hit Romans 6 and it's still good news, but somehow sounds a lot harder and maybe negative.

Paul says things like:

“How can we who are dead to sin go on living in it?”
“…we have been united with Jesus in a death like his.”
“our old self was crucified with him.”
“…whoever has died is freed from sin.”
“consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God.”

After all that love and justification and righteousness, this does not sound that warm and fluffy: a lot of death and a lot of sin.

Why? It has to do with us living in two realities at the same time. I know. That sounds a little SciFi, but it is true. We live and move and have our being in the presence of two realities. 

No wonder life is hard.

Created Design: Order out of Chaos

June 07, 2020

It is Trinity Sunday. It comes to us amid a wave of racial division and civil unrest sparked by the murder of George Floyd, an African American man by those in authority – the police. It also happens a during pandemic…not humanity’s first – but our first. 

A part of what contributes to our experience of both of these happenings is our amazing technology oddly. It wasn’t always like this. Today, news is all the time every day be it next door or around the world. How overwhelming. It is a dark and chaotic time.

Trinity Sunday speaks into this. The Trinity. God the three in one and one and three. We think we may grasp this, but it also completely eludes us. It is mystery. But where we dial in this morning is that God is big. God is so much, and we are so small. God is in charge and we are not. 

We see in our Genesis reading that God lives in union and invites us into union with God and others. God has all authority and is in charge and invites us to rule and reign with God. 

This shows us a lot about who God is. In the midst of power, authority, and love God is a God of risk. God has designed us to fundamentally participate in God’s plans – not only relationship with God, but it is on us to develop ourselves to participate in ruling and reigning with God. And that starts now…not some far off float around in heaven passive thing; but now we help build up the kingdom of God, we help promote those things that will forever be with us in eternity. Think in terms of what can be in God’s presence: hate – no, brutality – no, rejection – no, love – yes, kindness – yes, inclusion – yes. We can be about, and we can promote eternal reality now. God’s kingdom.

Our readings today help us glimpse this – Paul’s exhortation in 2nd Corinthians: put things in order, agree with one another, live in peace…and in Jesus’ command in Matthew: Go make disciples.

Union with God.
Ruling and reigning with God. 

In our Genesis reading we see God moving in Trinitarian union. We literally go back to the beginning today. In the beginning…it was dark and chaotic: “the earth was formless, and void and darkness covered the face of the deep,” in Hebrew this formless and void is the phrase: Tohu wa-bohu Something we face today. We personally, corporately, and globally are in a dark time of Tohu wa-bohu. 

We see that God then and now creates order out of chaos, out of formless void and darkness. And though it begins simply in a verse, do not miss the power it must have taken. Episcopal priest Carole Crumley writing on this passage offers: “Those brief verses depict the immense power of the spirit of God that hovers and broods over all darkness.” The more direct the translation of this verse is “the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.” Moving there is “Rachaph” that is that hovering and brooding that Crumley mentioned. To stay, to move, to shake, to grow soft and spread over – to cover. 

Tohu wa-bohu. All darkness and formless and void. Hovering. Brooding. Power. Change.

God is into creating order out of chaos from the beginning and for us today.

What would it take?

May 10, 2020

If someone were to ask you, what is it that would take away all the trouble in your heart? All that weighs it down or causes inward commotion. All that stirs anxiety - If someone came to you and asked what would it take to lift the trouble in your heart, what would you say? (Consulted work: Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2)

It is a bit overwhelming to ponder. Partly because it simply seems impossible. Particularly now. A pandemic. Death. Grief that is complicated by social distancing, wellbeing also complicated by social distancing limitations. Fear. A dire financial situation. Anxiety…and more…

What do you need to not have a troubled heart? 

That is where our gospel reading begins today. Jesus is answering that question. In the narrative of John, just prior to this in chapter 13, Jesus had foretold his betrayal, washed their feet, spoken the new commandment to love one another, and told Peter, “before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.” 

Their hearts are heavy…troubled. There is more happening than they can understand, and they know it is bad personally and for everyone…a little like our feelings with covid-19. We do not understand it. It is bad for everybody. And it is bad for us personally.

Jesus does not frame this lifting of hearts with a question. We start with a bit of exhortation: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” In the Greek, the word for heart is Kardia…cardia…like heart. But it is broader, not just referring to our physical heart. It is about the control center of life. All that makes us work (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance).  Do not let your control center, where all comes together for the momentum of your daily life become troubled – become agitated, under commotion, anxious. 

That is a giant exhortation. 

After the exhortation, it is almost like there is a sentence missing, something like: I have got you. I have got what you need for this. 

Jesus is offering what we need to not have troubled hearts. 

We may picture crazy tangible generosity to be offered at this point…but no, that is not where this is going. 

The way to alleviate the heavy heart Jesus proclaims is to “believe in God, believe also in me.” What? 

If you listen for it, the word believe is used six times in our gospel reading today. That is a lot. In conversations with friends and those close to us, like in scripture. When something is said over and over, it is worth paying attention to – it is a theme.

Grief, Remembering, and Help from God

April 26, 2020

The Road to Emmaus…This is perhaps a familiar bible story. The gospel of Luke uniquely uses journey or going from place to place as a motif. Luke communicates narrative but uses journey as a literary device to emphasize theology, not history or geography.  

So, when we hear a journey as a part of the narrative, in Luke, it signals us to pay attention and to ask some questions about its deeper meaning. 

I appreciated what Bishop Benfield said about scripture Easter Day, he said that it is for then and there, but Scripture is also always for here and now – a message in our context, for us today.

In our reading, we have two people walking and Jesus joins them. They are some of the “rest” or “them” – followers of Jesus but not inner circle. They have likely been in Jerusalem for the Passover and quite aware of Jesus’ “hour” coming, though not understanding what it meant. 

So, they are going home. Like so many after the Passover. And they are shattered. Their hope is gone. Jesus is dead, some women have told a story about angels and an empty tomb but there is no body, no Jesus. 

They are grieving together. Talking as they walk, recounting what happened – as we often do with a tragedy. Today in our pandemic it would be something like, this is how the sickness started, this is when the ambulance came and no one could go with them to the hospital, this is when it all went south…remembering.

Remembering is a power thing. To remember is to re put together. It helps us. It helps us to picture it, to say it, to feel it, to know it. To make it real.

As they are remembering together, suddenly Jesus shows up and they do not recognize him. It could be a product of their grief on an emotional level. It could be as simple as being outside of their plausibility structure: Jesus is dead, so Jesus would not be here with us. Or could it be that for these two of the multitudes, Jesus was so draped and cloaked in their expectations of him that they really could not see him. 

Jesus walks up and hears them and says: what are you talking about? And Cleopas says, I imagine kind of rudely to…God: “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place…?” Jesus answers: “What things?” In Greek, a single word: Poia

You are the Messiah, the Son of God

April 05, 2020

Palm Sunday. Lent has felt long and today we arrive at a tipping point. We move from Lent, maybe with this pandemic, the longest Lent of our lives, to the Passion week. 

I’ll confess, it’s tempting to connect this day and our texts to our own experiences – and make it about us. But, the fulcrum of this day demands we focus on Jesus and our need to respond to being saved.

We started today with Palms symbolizing celebration – the wonder and joy of welcoming Jesus as King into our midst. Then our gospel reading has taken us, beautifully through the chant from Jesus’ betrayal to his death and the plan of burial in the tomb.  

There’s so much. It’s kind of chaotic and full - and even the chant of the gospel for today serves to illustrate it. Even in that there is a bit of disconnect – the beauty of the sound and the intensity of the words. Into that you feed the abundance of content and minute descriptions in the narrative. It’s a lot.  

So much disjointedness, and chaos, and content…and pain.

Where do we begin? 

It tends to be helpful, when we can, to put ourselves in a context. Palm Sunday, as I said, serves as a tipping point into the Passion or Holy week. We refer to the Passion of Christ, the word passion from Latin is patior – meaning suffer. It is what Jesus endured for our redemption, our salvation (Saunders, William.    

Lent is the season that bids us to journey with Christ toward his suffering and death. Holy week – this week before Easter - puts a magnifying glass on Jesus’ last week – from entering Jerusalem, when everybody is so happy, to his death. The Passion of Christ. 

Today is an overload of important stuff. And it takes us through really the content of the entire narrative of focus from Maundy Thursday, where we typically think of Jesus’ washing the disciple’s feet, to his crucifixion and death on Good Friday. Prior to that we see in Holy week snapshots that help us dial into the reality of Jesus’ coming suffering.  

We begin to see scripture and church history converging in this practice of Holy week. Scripture shows us our reality, and church history bringing practices that help us take it in.

The Silent Exhortation of the Unnamed Man

March 22, 2020

Today we hear of a miracle, the man healed reflects to the Pharisees: “never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.” 

This is a fascinating text and offers some things for us to us to chew on in this time of pandemic. We observe people who are not aware, people who are looking to solve by pointing the finger, and people who are afraid. Not unfamiliar to us in this time. 

This person, who experiences this profound healing, and is sought out by Jesus afterward, is never given a name in our narrative.  

I think this says something. Somehow it silently exhorts us. 

The opening is interesting. This man is blind from birth and the disciples want to know why. They frame their question by wondering to Jesus whose fault it is: “Rabbi,” they say, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  

Who sinned…well everybody. I can hear in some circles today similar thoughts about this pandemic. Whose fault is it? Did we sin and now God’s judgement?  

Jesus’ answer is interesting, He says: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” 

This pushes on our assumptions. We may read this to say: this person was born blind so that they could be healed, and God would be known. But that is not what this is saying. We can tend to put these together: healing means revelation of God or in contrast, no healing means no revelation of God. But that is not what is laid out. Our God is a God or revelation both within and through our limitations. Here, God would be revealed whether the man born blind received his sight or not. That’s just who God is. 

Why is this pandemic happening? We cannot pin that down. We are so limited as creatures. But in it, we can look for God’s works to be revealed.  

God’s works here are healing. This blind person, who has not seen Jesus is strangely healed through spit and mud and washing - and afterward their community, church leaders, and parents let them down.  

In the presence of God’s works being revealed, this person, who is never even given a name is let down. 

First his neighbors show that they do not even know who they are: is this the beggar? They say. No, it’s not the beggar. They do not recognize this person. Not because they look different because they can see, but because they have never noticed the one who needed help in their midst. Ouch. As this person responds to their questions, we begin to see this person’s journey to belief in Jesus. On this first round, they say “The man called Jesus” opened my eyes.  

The neighbors then bring the Pharisees to the person “formerly born blind,” and they respond with contempt toward this work of God. It has happened on the Sabbath. The Law has been broken. To them the person says the one who opened my eyes “is a prophet.” 

For this person Jesus has moved from being merely a man to be a prophet – a messenger of God.  

Then their parents are brought in and they cave under fear of personal consequence: there had already been agreement “that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. So, they say of their son, “ask him.”  

This person has encountered Jesus, is journeying in their faith, and is repetitively let down by those around them: people who do not pay attention, people who respond with contempt, people who cave under fear.  

It’s here the narrative circles back. We see that God has not only met with this person and helped them but is pursuing them. “Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him…”  -  Let’s not miss this. We see here how God relates to us: Jesus heard about this person…Jesus was paying attention. Listening. Aware. And further – Jesus found this person. Jesus looked for this person and found them. This brings out concepts we hear from our Psalm appointed for the day: The Lord is my Shepherd.  

The word picture of shepherd is prevalent in scripture. This was a familiar vocation then and there. People knew what it meant that God be shepherd to them. It means that God is with us, carries us, searches for us, sacrifices for us. 

And here we also see that God calls us to follow, to act. Jesus, upon finding this person says: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” and remember – this is the first time this person has seen Jesus. Upon seeing and interacting they say: “Lord, I believe.” And they worship. This word for worship here implies that they fall to their knees or prostrate themselves. There is a full body reaction to this profession of faith. This person has moved from seeing Jesus as a Man, to a prophet, to the Savior. 

There are a couple of trains of thought for us to take away from this narrative of a person without a name that are pertinent in this time of pandemic.  

The first is reflection on who we are to people right now. The unspoken exhortation we see here is let’s care for each other even in this time of social distancing. Let’s call, text, FaceTime, skype each other. Let’s not buy out the stores but just buy what we need so there is enough for everybody. 

This person is not named. Let’s pay attention and notice and know who others are. Let us not be like this person’s neighbors who did not ever notice them before. They were someone in their midst but somehow unfamiliar.   

Further, let’s not respond with contempt for the happenings in the lives of others. Let us not label and demean.  

And let us not act out of fear but out of love. Let us advocate for each other and stand together with others during this time of crisis.  

Lastly, let us reflect on the truth of God’s nature and character: The Lord is our Shepherd. To each of us. God meets us and carries us when we need support. God is inconvenienced to care for us – God is listening and looking for us and finds us. God sacrifices to take care of us. 

Thank God for God’s presence and power and love.

Nic’s Invitation & Challenge

March 08, 2020

We heard in our gospel reading, some language that we do not often hear in our Episcopal setting. You must be born again. It may sound a bit Evangelical, perhaps even Fundamentalist…but low and behold, here it is…in the Bible. 

What do we do with it? 

It may make us uncomfortable or maybe it assures us… 

In our Epistle and our gospel reading today we hear repeated the words faith, works, righteousness, and belief. And in our Old Testament reading, we pretty much see all of these illustrated through Abram - And remember Abram and Abraham are the same person…A change of name is given by God just a few chapters later in Genesis to more accurately reflect that he is the father of many nations. We are also seeing Nicodemus illustrate these key words today – faith, works, righteousness, and belief - but he is moving more slowly and carefully. 

It appears that God tells Abram to go and Abram simply does. To a place he knows not. 

But in our gospel reading, we are introduced to Nicodemus. He is a pharisee. That tells us, he is educated, and values keeping the law and values making sure the law is practiced by others. He is described as a leader of the Jews. In contemporary terms, he is a respected businessman who is a leader in the community. 

Nic, we’ll call him, is a part of the movement that is offended by Jesus. The pharisees value law, exclusivity, and outer appearances that esteem works – things you do. Jesus, in his ministry, is demonstrating inclusivity, mercy and grace. There is tension, and it is growing. 

But somehow Nic is stirred, curious…and maybe afraid. If he begins to show interest or follow Jesus, it will cost him everything – his standing as a pharisee and as a leader in the community. 

There is a lot at stake. 

So, what does Nic do – he sneaks around. Not a very good role model, but perhaps a person who we resonate with. 

This is in steep contrast to the activation of Abram to go where he knows not. 

Here’s where it gets interesting and maybe comical – Nic’s interaction with Jesus. 

Nic, by what he says, shows his hand. He’s convinced God’s presence is with Jesus: “no one,” he says, “can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Notice he’s not asking a question. But Jesus, “answers” him. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

First Sunday in Lent

March 01, 2020

Three temptations; three choices:

Be amazingly relevant: do something the world will praise you for—make bread out of stones.

Be spectacular: jump from tall buildings so everybody can see how important and safe you are.

Be powerful: bow before the world so you can dominate everyone and everything.

Three responses from Jesus: No, No, and No.

Jesus says “No” and the temptations left, and angels took their place.

For us, right now:

The world would have us feed our hungry bellies with more and more and more stuff; God would have us feed our hungry souls with the very Bread of Life.

The world would have us feed our ego and be safe; God would have us take risks and claim our authentic self as the very image of God.

The world would have us use power to build ourselves up; God would have us share Love that is drawn from the Real Source of power.

Resisting temptation is hard. Discerning our authentic selves and God’s loving presence requires intention. Lent is a good time to learn how to make better choices and to invite our better angels into our journey.

In our Gospel story this morning, Jesus uses the living Word of God to guide his thinking through his choices. In all three responses, he draws from Deuteronomy to make good choices that apply to his own situation. That is one reason we call our Scripture “living.” We can look for rhymes and patterns in God’s Living Word that connect to our own experiences and help us to choose rightly—with integrity. There is a promise in that. There is also a warning: one of the temptations, afterall, were words drawn from Psalm 91. The promise doesn’t mean easy.

For Lent this year, try reading Scripture contemplatively or imaginatively--Lectio Divina for example—reading not for information, but rather as prayer for revelation and inspiration from the Holy Spirit, translating it into our daily life. Reading Scripture this way forces us to be honest about ourselves; it guides us through self-examination, reflecting on our capacity for compassion. It guides us through confession, repentance, forgiveness, and discernment. From our Lenten texts, if we put ourselves into the stories of Jesus’ trials and choices, we find ways to understand and question our own lives. It is how we can learn to live “the way” of Jesus in today’s world.