Friday, November 20, 2015

“Sowing Tears, Reaping Joy” - November 22, 2015

Text: Psalm 126

This is the season for giving thanks.  Most of us don’t labor in the fields or depend upon farming for our livelihood, but nevertheless we can celebrate that we have made it through the long growing season and the hard work of the harvest.  We can celebrate in earth’s bounty and we can rejoice in all of God’s blessings.

There are no better expressions of thanksgiving than those found in the Psalms.  The Psalm we read this morning, Psalm 126, seems at first glance to be perfect for Thanksgiving.  What better holiday than the feast of turkey and dressing and pumpkin pie to read about shouts of joy and mouths full of laughter?  What a great time of year to say, “The Lord has done great things for us!” For many, it is  easy to give praise to God for all of the blessings of life.

For the writer of this psalm, however, this was definitely not the case.  This psalm was written not in a time of joy, but at a time when the only thing the people had going for them was the memory of joy.  It was written in a time of sowing seeds in sorrow, of weeping for all that has been lost.  If you read this Psalm closely, you will find that none of the joy is in the present tense.

The last two Sundays, we have been in the northern kingdom of Israel, first with the prophet Elijah and then last week the prophet Hosea.  This Psalm is set in Judah, the southern kingdom.  Israel was taken into captivity in Assyria.  After that, Judah was defeated by the Babylonians and much of the population, including the leading citizens and skilled workers, was taken into captivity in Babylon.  After an exile of 50 or 60 years, King Cyrus of Persia defeated the Babylonians and the Jews were allowed to return to their homeland.  There was great joy and celebration.  It was a wonderful, long-awaited homecoming.  It was like  a dream.

But they were soon confronted with the hard reality of the situation.  They returned to a desolate landscape, to a temple that had been destroyed, to a place that was but a shell of its former self.  They worked hard to rebuild but still faced the specter of enemies.  Crops and prosperity and blessings and even hope seemed to dry up like now-dusty riverbeds.

In other words, although there had been past glories, from the Exodus out of Egypt to the Golden Age of King David to their recent return from exile in Babylon, the Israelites now faced what seemed like a very difficult and precarious moment.  Which is to say that the times in which they lived were not completely unlike our time.

Judah would have understood an age of terror.  A time of war and violence.  A time of economic uncertainty and political upheaval and a time of fear.

Despite all of this – despite the circumstances in which Judah found itself – we read this psalm of hope in what is likely only the beginning of a long, hard season – the beginning of winter, if you will.

Where does the hope come from?  In Psalm 126, hope comes first of all from memory.  “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.  Our mouth was filled with laughter, our tongue with shouts of joy.”

Where do we find hope?  Hope comes from recalling the stories of those who have gone before us, whose faith brought them through trials and tribulations only to experience blessing and renewal once again.

It comes from the belief that trouble does not last forever, and “while weeping may endure for the night, joy comes in the morning.”

It come from taking the long view, from believing, like Martin Luther King Jr. who so often quoted Theodore Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

It comes from the foolish but somehow trustworthy faith that, with God, you can sow seeds in the tears of winter, and reap a joyful harvest in the spring.

Just like the psalmists, we learn this faith from our own experiences of God, our own experiences of joy, and from those that have been handed down to us.

What is it that gives you joy?  As you look back at your life, what is a joyful moment that stands out for you?
You may think of those special times of celebration in life – births, graduations, weddings, baptisms.  You may think of family gatherings – maybe even around the table at Thanksgiving.  You may think of good times shared with friends, maybe working together with others to accomplish something meaningful and important.

Maybe it is feeling of the breeze as you ride a bike on a beautiful day, or the swish of a perfect jump shot, or finishing a beautiful quilt you had been working on forever, or preparing a wonderful meal for others.  Maybe what comes to mind is the memory of a special place you have visited.  I can think of hiking with Zoe in the Swiss Alps, or a trip Susan and I took to Maine.  Maybe music gives you joy and calling to mind that special song can bring hope.

Sometimes, life can look bleak, and the only joy we can muster is the memory of joy.  Yesterday I got up and put gasoline in the snow blower.  This was followed by gasoline raining from under my snow blower onto the garage floor.  I apparently have a significant leak in the gas tank.  We have six inches of snow on the ground, and all I can do is remember that it was 65 just a week and a half ago.  I can remember the good old days of last winter, when I put gas in the gas tank and it stayed there.

The Jewish people faced a dire situation.  There was no joy in the present; hope came from the memory of joy.

The Psalm prays that God would “restore our fortunes like the watercourses in the Negeb.”  In the Negeb desert, there are to this day dry streambeds that can suddenly become a raging torrent during a thunderstorm.  These streambeds may be dry, the land all around may look parched, but someone familiar with the area knows that rain water will come.  Though the present looked bleak for the people of Judah, there is a promise that blessings will come and that present circumstances would not last forever.

We move from tears to joy by recalling God’s presence and blessings in past times.  But then, the Psalm moves to the future tense.  “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.  Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”

When I was a kid, I remember singing the hymn “Bringing in the Sheaves.”  It is an old gospel song.  (Raise your hand if you are familiar with it.)  The hymn is “Bringing in the Sheaves,” but my sister didn’t get the words right.  She would sing “Bringing in the Sheets.”  We thought that was pretty funny.

Well, what is a sheave?  (Actually, if you have just one, it’s a sheaf.)  Sheaves are bundles of cut stalks of grain.  If you are 5 years old, sheets make a lot more sense.  This was a laundry hymn.  You do the wash, you hang the sheets on the clothesline, and then you bring in the sheets.  There might even be rejoicing, because it’s nice to have fresh, clean sheets.

Even as a kid, this hymn had an “old-time religion” feel to it.  We don’t sing it much anymore.  As far as I can tell, it is not included in any of the currently published hymnals.  We’ve got a pretty good collection of 12 or 14 hymnals here, and it’s not in any of them.  I finally found it in an old, old hymnal, Tabernacle Hymns, published in 1947.

Maybe we don’t sing it because we don’t use the language of carrying sheaves.  It’s not only the language that is archaic; we don’t farm that way anymore, and if we were to sing about a 16-row combine, it wouldn’t have quite the same poetry.

“Sheaves” may not be a part of our everyday vocabulary, but we know about sowing and reaping.  We know about planting and harvest.  The Psalm speaks of sowing tears and reaping joy.

We may all be very different people, but one thing we have in common is that we have experienced pain.  The pain of loss.  Losses of all sorts.  The pain of sickness, the pain of loneliness, the pain of heartache, of betrayal.  The pain of trying to find where you fit in in this world.  We know the pain of worrying over children, over friends, over loved ones.  The pain of worrying over this world.

We know tears.  The Psalm says that those who go out weeping shall come home with shouts of joy.

This is a Psalm about sowing seeds in hard times.  Now, we are not in a season of planting; this is the season of harvest.  You don’t plant your crop in November, and the notion of sowing tears does not sound like something that will bring the harvest you really want.

Yet this psalm tells us to go ahead and plant seeds in unlikely times and places.  It’s a psalm that tells us to journey on, and the harvest will be great.  Joy will come.  Laughter will burst forth.  We will reap a joyful harvest somehow, some way.  We believe this because it has happened before, and we walk in the faith that God will lead us there again.

Psalm 126 is really about all those things that give meaning to life.  It is about what makes life worth living.  We sow, and we reap.

To live a life of honor and integrity is in a sense sowing and reaping, and it is hard work.  It can mean staying up late and getting up early.  It can mean long years of preparation, years of schooling and study.  It means that when you give your word, you stand by it.  It can mean self-denial – putting others before yourself.  It means that to love somebody, anybody, means that someday your heart will be broken.  And yet it is always worth it: you may sometimes sow in tears, but one day you will reap in joy.

To raise children is a way of sowing and reaping.  There’s the pain of childbirth, but then there’s the joy of a new baby.  The thrill of that new baby, as we remembered last week, is followed by sleepless nights, trips to the emergency room, temper tantrums, parenting teenagers, and then shedding tears as they go off to college or as you stand at the front of the church to marry them off.  Nothing is guaranteed, but if we are fortunate we eventually get a reasonably mature, grown-up human being.  We may sow in tears, but one day we will reap in joy.

Many of you are teachers.  Teaching is all about sowing and reaping.  You work hard, you put up with all of the bureaucracy that can surround the job, you endure students who seem to not have the least interest in what they are learning, but then one day you run into a former student who is successful and making a real difference, and after all of that sowing, there is a harvest.

Building a church family involves sowing and reaping.  You take a hundred or so people who don’t look alike or think alike or act alike, and try to build a more or less harmonious community of faith.

Most parents consider themselves lucky to get two kids to behave in the car; why should we think that we could get a diverse group of people, a motley bunch like us, to work together as a family of faith?  Yet we all invest the gifts we have; we give of our time and talent and resources while we honor what others contribute.  And lo and behold, something that is greater than ourselves, bigger and better than any of us individually, comes into being.  Lives are changed, needs are met, people are served, good news is proclaimed.  We may sow in tears, but we will reap in joy.

God has blessed us before.  God will bless us again.  The joy we have experienced in the past and the prospect of joy in the future become a part of our present, and we can be people of Thanksgiving even in hard times.

Now here’s the deal: Thanksgiving can be tricky.  For some, this is a season filled not with the anticipation of reunions and wonderful food and football and card-playing and shopping trips for those so inclined, but rather the dread of family dysfunction, or the reminder of a loved one who is gone.  Thanksgiving can be hard because we are not able to provide that Martha Stewart-type beautiful meal that is held up by media and tradition.  This is a time to give all of those worries to God as a seed and pray for a harvest of peace.  

For others, this may be a season to reflect on the gifts we have, and to practice the difficult discipline of believing that what we have is actually enough.  It is a small seed of gratitude that can perhaps bring a harvest of enough sanity to navigate the craziness of Black Friday without bankrupting ourselves in either checkbook or soul.

Or maybe Thanksgiving marks the beginning of a season that is so hectic for you that just thinking about it makes you tired.  Perhaps you have to make trips to connect with family members at Thanksgiving, and when you get home you know it will only get busier during the Christmas season.  Maybe you need to take a deep breath, remember what really matters, and plant a small seed of hope.
Psalm 126 tells us, not only at Thanksgiving but in every time of the year, that what God has done in the past is the measure of our hope for the future.  The dry places in our lives can again be overflowing streams.  The seeds that we sow, the work that we do, the love we share, the gifts we offer, these are all prelude to a joyful harvest.

May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

Thanks to Rev. David Haley for his sermon that helped inspire this message.

Friday, November 13, 2015

“No Matter What” - November 15, 2015

Text: Hosea 11:1-9

A few months ago I shared a bit about the movie Groundhog Day, and since that time, I have been inundated with requests for more stories from comedy movies of 25 years ago.  OK, maybe not exactly inundated.  But I do want to start off this morning with an incident that took place in the movie Ghostbusters.

The basic story is that three unemployed parapsychology professors (and I think that is actually redundant, I have never heard of an employed parapsychology professor) begin a business to capture unwanted ghosts.  There is a scene in which the Ghostbusters are in jail, having been arrested because their ghost detention chamber allegedly failed to meet EPA standards.  They are trying to convince the mayor that the threat posed by ghosts in the city of New York is real and that they should be released from jail so that they can fight against this grave threat and protect the city.

One of the Ghostbusters tells the mayor that the city is headed for a disaster of biblical proportions.  The mayor asks, “What do you mean?” 

One of the Ghostbusters responds, “What he means is Old Testament, Mr. Mayor.  Real wrath-of-God type stuff.

And then they describe it: “Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies!  Rivers and seas boiling!  Forty years of darkness!  Earthquakes, volcanoes!

Another adds: “The dead rising from the grave!  Human sacrifice!  Dogs and cats living together!  Mass hysteria!”

It’s hard not to love this movie.  But I mention this cinematic classic because of the wrath of God business.  When the ghostbuster Ray Stantz says, “What he means is Old Testament,” we know what he is talking about.

There is a great deal of violence and death and destruction in the Old Testament, and there is this popular perception that the Old Testament depicts a God of wrath while the New Testament God is a God of love.  There are those who have always felt this way.  Marcion, an early Christian leader who was eventually deemed by the church to be a heretic, said that the wrathful Old Testament God was a lesser and completely different God than the God of the New Testament.

Well, I will give you that it is easier to find wrath and judgment and destruction in the Old Testament.  But in the Hebrew Scriptures, we find a growing and evolving understanding of God and the way God works in the world.  And alongside pictures of God’s judgment we have beautiful and moving pictures of God’s love.  A good example is our text today in the book of Hosea.

Like Elijah, whom we looked at last week, Hosea is a prophet in the northern kingdom of Israel.  He lived about 100 years after Elijah.  Unlike Elijah, he is a writing prophet.  That is, we read about Elijah in 1 Kings, but we read words that the prophet Hosea wrote in the book of Hosea.  In our Bible, Hosea is the first of the 12 minor prophets.  They are not called minor prophets because their message is less important but because these 12 shorter books were all contained together on one scroll, while the books of prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah might take up one or more scrolls all by itself.

Hosea contains two basic metaphors for God and the way God relates to humanity.  The first is the metaphor of a husband of a wayward spouse.  God asks Hosea to enact a picture of God’s relationship with Israel by marrying an unfaithful wife.  Hosea is told to marry a prostitute, and he marries a woman named Gomer.  Hosea and Gomer have children who are given the names Not Pitied, Not My People, and I Am Not Your God to illustrate the fact that God’s patience is gone, that after generations of Israel turning from God, of turning a blind eye to justice, of failing to live as God’s people, God has had enough.  So Hosea’s children are given these names.

But God can’t follow through.  God’s love is too deep, and in chapter two we read that the opposite of what the children’s names announce will happen.  Israel will be pitied, they will be God’s people, and they will say, “You are my God.”  By now Gomer has long since left Hosea, but Hosea goes to redeem Gomer, buying her for the price of a slave and bringing her home.  It is a picture of God never giving up on Israel and God redeeming a wayward humanity.

Now the story is a bit problematic in that living, breathing people are treated as object lessons, but it is nevertheless a powerful image.  Israel has been unfaithful, but God will remain faithful and continue to love God’s people. 

The second metaphor, which we find in our scripture for today, is of a parent.  Chapters 4-10 are basically judgment oracles.  Israel’s transgressions are plain for all to see and impending doom is upon the nation.  And in fact, Assyrian armies would soon be descending on Israel and its capital of Samaria, which was under siege for three years.  But despite all of it sin, despite all of its waywardness, despite its infidelity, God cannot give up on Israel.  And we come to the tender words of chapter 11.

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.  The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.  Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love.  I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.  I bent down to them and fed them.
We have this powerful, maternal image of God loving God’s people as a mother loves a child. 

Now there were those in the early church who, influenced by Greek philosophy, argued that God is unmoving, pure truth, pure logic, not swayed by human emotion.  The human Jesus represented passion and suffering, but God the Father did not suffer.  And in fact, what came to be called patripassianism – literally the suffering of the father – was ruled a heresy.  God cannot suffer, the Church said.  There was more to it, and what they objected to most was what they saw as a blurring if not erasing of lines between the three persons of the Trinity, but still.  The legacy is that we have wound up with the image of God as cold and detached and above it all, and Jesus as the caring member of the Trinity.  God is a harsh judge while Jesus is our friend.

Well, enough Historical Theology.  The larger point is that when I read passages like Hosea chapter 11, it is hard to imagine God as detached.  God feels.  God cares.  God has compassion.  God is deeply moved.  God is affected by the actions of God’s children.  And it is hard to read these words and say that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath.

“When Israel was a child, I loved him.”  It is great to have babies, new children and grandchildren, in the congregation.  There are more babies on the way, with two due next month.  Those tiny babies are so precious to their parents.  The parents will shelter them, feed them, change dirty diapers.  They will spend countless hours caring for them and playing with them and sleepless nights attempting to get them to go back to sleep.  Parents will spend long nights nursing them through sickness. 

In the eyes of parents and grandparents, babies can do no wrong.  What is amazing about all of this is the fact that as babies, we do nothing to deserve the love and care we receive.  Our parents willingly shower love and attention on us.

This is the way it is with God and us.  God’s love for us is just a given.  And that love remains with us through our lives. 

The prophet continues, “… I taught Ephraim to walk” (Ephraim is another word for Israel it was one of the larger northern tribes.)  Parenting does not stop once the child can feed herself or himself and is potty trained.  Being a mother or father never ends.  Parenting is walking with our children as they explore, discover, run, fall – as they experience life.  Parents are present to dry tears and celebrate successes. 

As a parent, there will be times when we will have to discipline inappropriate behavior.  We’ll have to put the kid in “time out.”  There will be those times when we demand that bedrooms to be cleaned or enforce time for homework or say No, you can’t have another cookie.  There are those times when we have to say No for the child’s own good.

And as a parent, there will be those times of letting go.  From letting go of the bicycle as you are running alongside so that your son can learn to ride for himself to letting your daughter take the keys and drive off in the car by herself for the first time, parents have to allow children to make decisions and choices and be responsible for themselves.

This is the way God thought of Israel.  God called the Israelites out of Egypt.  God journeyed with them and led them through the wilderness.  God provided for their needs, giving them manna every morning and drawing water from rocks.  God had cared for Israel like a child, but as Israel grew, it had not followed in the way that God had led.

The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols… I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them.
It is 2:00 am and your teenager’s curfew is 11:00.  She has not called or texted.  You have called the parents of the friends she is supposed to be with.  Both of those friends are in bed asleep.  You keep calling, keep sending text messages but get no response.  You check Facebook for clues.  You are thinking about calling the police when the front door suddenly opens and there she is.  You are so relieved; you want to hug her and hold her close and at the same time you could strangle her.

This is what God is feeling.  Both anger and love.  The anger is really a part of the love.

Part of parenting is knowing that sometimes, children have to learn for themselves.  You may want to step in and save your child from the results of their behavior, but sometimes being a parent requires you to let them learn from their mistakes, learn to be responsible.  And we cannot always shield children from the consequences of their actions, as much as we might want to.  And so the prophet says,

They shall return to the land of Egypt; Assyria shall be their king.  The sword rages in their cities; it consumes their oracle-priests and devours because of their schemes.
As a parent, the choices that your child makes can sometimes make you want to pull your hair out.  You may remember your son or daughter as an innocent child while you watch in agony as that child wrestles with drug addiction or alcoholism or repeated incarceration.  It is like that for God with Israel; it has reached the point where God seems resigned to let the consequences of Israel’s behavior play out.  And Israel will suffer the consequences of decisions and actions it has taken – the Assyrian army was at its doorstep.  And yet – despite everything – God just cannot give up on Israel.

How can I give you up, Ephraim?  How can I hand you over, O Israel? …  My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.  I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.

Here in the middle of the Hebrew scriptures, set in the midst of judgment oracles, we find these tender and powerful words of love.  God will never give up on us.  Whether we have brought suffering on ourselves, whether we have turned from God, or whether we have simply suffered from the pain that is so much a part of our broken world, God will always be there.

The current issue of the Christian Century included a number of short essays submitted by readers on the subject of song - ways that music had influenced the writers or touched their lives.  One especially spoke to me.

Nancy Bauer-King, a pastor in Wisconsin, wrote:

It took me 45 years to catch on to the value of a faith community.  Then one Sunday, halfway through the first verse of the opening song, I got it.
I had completed my first year as a pastor and was standing behind the pulpit singing no. 133 in the Methodist hymnal: “What a fellowship, what a joy divine, leaning on the everlasting arms.”  I knew the people well enough to know some of their personal histories.  I knew the hymn well enough to look out over the congregation as I sang.

Ruth and Roger both lost spouses to cancer and then found each other.  Bernie’s first husband killed himself with a shotgun.  Ben and Gloria buried a two-year old child.  Bob’s wife and two grandchildren were killed in an accident with a semi.  Jim’s son was in prison.  J.C. lost an arm in a mishap with a corn picker.  Sandy recently joined a support group for incest survivors.

Then it hit me: they were all singing.  How could they sing?  How could they experience such tragedies, yet come to worship every Sunday and sing?
We know the answer because we have experienced such pain and loss ourselves.  The answer is that we have had experiences of faith that transcend our suffering.  The answer is that we have felt the everlasting arms holding us up when we could not go on on our own.  The answer is that we have learned through hard experience that whatever happens, God will be there.

Hosea’s words are a powerful reminder of God’s unfailing love.  “How can I give you up?” God asks.  The very notion is offensive to God – “my heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.”

God is not an unmoved mover, a deity who sits in heaven above it all, observing creation.  God is a passionate God who suffers with us, a parent who always loves us, always cares for us, always wants the best for us - no matter what.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

“Going All In” - November 8, 2015

Text: 1 Kings 18:20-39

It’s interesting how words and phrases enter our American vocabulary.  Frequently, there are words and phrases that are part of a subculture that but gain popularity to where they become a part of mainstream usage.  Such language may come from technology or youth culture or urban culture or from a particular ethnic group, but it can come from other places.  It is interesting to me how much the language of poker playing is a part of our everyday conversation.

Many of poker’s words and phrases evoke a kind of romance and drama and derring-do that we hope might rub off on the more mundane activities of life.  So we talk about upping the ante, stacking the deck.  We’ll talk about something we are unsure of as a wild card.  We call somebody’s bluff or we want to be completely up front about something and so we’ll put all our cards on the table.

Another of these expressions, maybe of more recent vintage, is “all in.”  It refers to the moment when a player—whether out of bravado or recklessness or desperation—bets all of his or her chips on a single hand.  Thanks to the Texas Hold ‘Em craze of the 1990’s and 2000’s and the public’s appetite for dramatic hyperbole, this poker phrase crossed over into general use.  “I’m all in,” we say.

The all-in moment in poker is a thrilling win-or-lose-everything crisis of dramatic clarity: you’ve wagered all you’ve got and you can’t go back.  But in regular life, the phrase “all in” is almost always a gross exaggeration.  

A few years ago, Alex Rodriguez wanted to assure Yankees fans that the team was serious about winning.  He said, “We’re all in.  This is the most urgent we’ve been.  It’s going to be exciting.”  Well, the Yankees did not win the World Series.  But the players got paid anyway, and they were not all compelled to retire.  As it turns out, they really weren’t all in.  Last year, Cleveland Cavaliers fans were asked to go all in on LeBron James and their hometown team as the NBA playoffs began.  I don’t think the team really meant that. The Cavaliers did not win it all, but the team doesn’t expect its fans to cancel their season tickets and to watch reruns of “Everybody Loves Raymond” instead of the NBA on TNT.

The phrase “all in” is sometimes applied to politics.  Candidates say they are “all in” on immigration reform or raising the minimum wage or tax reform, but if these policies prove to not be so popular with voters or do not get enacted, chances are they are not going to retire from politics.  They are not really betting everything on it. 

“All in” is most often misused.  In most cases, a person is supportive of something – but not really “all in.”

Abraham Lincoln on preserving the union?  All in.  Mother Teresa on serving the poor?  All in.  The free-climber Alex Hannold climbing sheer rock faces without a rope?  He is all in.  If you quit your job, mortgage your house, and cash in your retirement so you can start your own business, you really are going all in.

And then there is Elijah at Mt. Carmel, challenging the prophets of Baal.  In our scripture this morning, Elijah was definitely all in.

How did it get to this point?  First, let’s back up a bit.  Last week we looked at King David.  He was far from perfect, but his reign represented the Golden Age of Israel.  David was succeeded by his son Solomon, known for his wisdom.  Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem.  But Solomon is the last of the kings of a united Israel.  It didn’t last long.  After Solomon, the kingdom divided north and south.  The southern kingdom of Judah and northern kingdom of Israel are frequently allies; they share the same history and the same faith, but they are never again a single united nation.

The southern kingdom of Judah is ruled by descendants of David for over 400 years.  These kings permit and at times encourage the worship of foreign gods, and there are a lot of corrupt and ineffective rulers.  But Judah’s track record is a lot better than that of Israel, the northern kingdom.  Israel faces numerous coups and rebellions and there is a succession of short-lived dynasties and rulers.  And if Judah strayed from God, Israel was generally a lot worse.

One of the longer-ruling kings of Israel is Ahab.  While he had a relatively long reign, it was not necessarily a good one.  1 Kings 16 says that he was “more evil than all the rulers before him,” which is really saying something.

Ahab married the Phoenician princess Jezebel.  This was a political move, a marriage intended to cement ties with a neighboring country.  Jezebel is a very strong personality and a real power in Israel.  She greatly expands the worship of Baal and Asherah, who are storm and agricultural and fertility gods.  We are told that King Ahab himself is a worshiper of Baal.  The king of Israel had turned his back on the God of Jacob, his ancestor for whom the nation is named.

Jezebel, it turns out, is not someone to cross; you don’t want to be on her bad side.  Prophets of Yahweh, the God of Israel, spoke out against Baal worship, and they paid for it.  Jezebel had many prophets of Yahweh killed.

God does not appreciate what is happening.  These are God’s own people, God’s children.  God had cared for them, provided for them, brought them out of Egypt, given them the Law to guide them.  And now God’s own people, led by its king, are turning to other gods.

The persecution of the prophets continues, and God instructs Elijah to go and confront Ahab.  When Elijah and Ahab finally meet, I love the way that Ahab greets Elijah.  He says, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?”  Obviously, there is some history between the two.

Elijah responds that Ahab is the one bringing troubles on the nation, with his turning from Yaheweh to worship Baal, but there is a sense in which Ahab is right: Elijah is a troubler of Israel.  But that was his job.  And being troubled is exactly what the people needed.

Apparently, the decisions and behavior of Ahab and Jezebel had not “troubled” the people, not nearly enough.  Under their administration, the worship of other deities had grown by leaps and bounds.  Prophets of the God of Israel had been murdered.  Ahab’s rule was characterized by injustice.  Ahab is seen by the writer of Kings as the worst ruler ever, but it doesn’t seem to bother the people very much.

And so God calls Elijah to stir things up, to wake the people from their national slumber.  Elijah asks Ahab to set up a meeting on Mt. Carmel with the 450 prophets of Baal. 

The people gather, and Elijah confronts them for their wishy-washiness, for their wholesale inability to choose between the God of Israel and other gods.  Basically, the people are covering their bases.  They worship the God of Israel, yes, but they also worship Baaland and Asherah too - you know, just in case. 

The problem is that if you are worshiping a bunch of Gods, then you are not really worshiping any God.  “How long will you limp along with two opinions?” asks Elijah.  “How long are you going to treat the worship of God so casually, like you are trying to decide between paper and plastic at the grocery store?  How long are you going to sit idly by while the nation turns to Baal, leaves behind the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and goes to hell in a handbasket?

That should get the people’s attention!  Elijah lays it on.  But the people don’t have anything to say.  They just kind of clear their throats and look at their feet.  When faced with a critical decision, they do nothing.  And like they say, not to decide is to decide.

So Elijah challenges the assembled prophets of Baal to a showdown.  Each will offer a sacrifice on the altar and call down fire from their god.  It will be clear which god is the more powerful – which is real and which is an imposter.  Everybody seems to love the idea.  It’s game on. 

Elijah really is risking everything.  If he fails, if God does not respond, there would seem to be no future for God’s relationship with Israel.  Elijah really is all in.  And here’s the thing: Elijah is a complete underdog in this confrontation.

First, it is Elijah vs. 450 prophets of Baal.  Elijah says that he is the only prophet of Yahweh remaining, but we know that is not exactly true.  In the previous chapter we read that there are 100 prophets of the Lord being hidden in a cave.  But Elijah has a flair for the dramatic, so we’ll let him get away with it.  At any rate, here on Mt. Carmel, it is 1 vs. 450.

And then, for Elijah this is a road game.  Opposing teams don’t want to play at Hilton Coliseum because of Hilton Magic – it is a really tough place for an opposing team to win.  Well, Mt. Carmel is part of a mountain range in northwest Israel that was a center of Baal worship.  This is their home territory.  The prophets of Baal have homefield advantage.  They’ve got Mt. Carmel Magic. 

And then, look at the contest.  It is to call down fire from the sky.  Well, Baal is the god of storms, the god of lightning. This is Baal’s thing.  It’s right up his alley.  This is like challenging Serena Williams in tennis.

And the contest is that the first team to score wins.  Baal’s team wins the coin toss and gets to go first.  It is a huge advantage.  It could all be over before Elijah even gets a shot at it.

So the prophets of Baal prepare their sacrifice and call on their god.  It goes on and on.  They dance wildly around their altar, hour after hour, crying out to Baal.  They cut themselves, as was the custom, to show their sincerity.  It is a pathetic display.

Meanwhile, Elijah gets a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.  He is taunting his opponents, trash talking.  “Maybe your god wandered off.  Maybe he is sleeping.”  The account in Scripture is actually cleaned up in our English translations.  In Hebrew, it’s more like, “Maybe Baal had to take a rest room break,” but Elijah doesn’t say it so politely.

For all of the efforts of the prophets of Baal, nothing happens.  Finally it is Elijah’s turn.  He knows a thing or two about drama.  He pours water over the altar, again and again, till everything is completely soaked and a trench around the altar is filled with water.  He knows how to play to the cameras.  There are oohs and aahs from the crowd.

The stage is set.  The crowd is pumped.  Elijah calls on God, and there is no pleading necessary, no ranting and raving, no cutting himself needed.  There are instant results.  Fire from heaven consumes everything - the sacrifice, the wood, the rocks, the dirt, even the water in the trench.  God seems to enjoy this as much as Elijah.

There could not be a more decisive victory.  There is no doubt left as to which god is the real god.  Imagine what a boost this was to the beleaguered worshipers of the God of Israel.  You would think that after this, the people would turn to God en masse.  But it doesn’t happen.  Worship of other gods alongside the God of Israel or instead of the God of Israel was widespread and continued; in fact, it would be generations before Israel was by and large monotheistic.

This is a wild and dramatic story.  It is easy to focus on the pyrotechnics and the drama.  But for us, I think what really confronts us is this idea of limping along with two opinions, of not deciding which God to follow.

I’ll be honest.  I have never met an actual worshiper of Baal.  People we know by and large don’t claim to be disciples of Jesus while worshiping a pantheon of deities on the side.  But if we look at it in another way, there are plenty of gods at whose altar we may sacrifice.

The scripture mentions the offering of oblation, which probably doesn’t mean anything to most of us, but this is basically a Gift Offering – an offering to show loyalty to the god you worship.

Like it or not, realize it or not, we all give gift offerings to the gods we worship.  And the gods that we bow down before do demand something of us.  We may worship a god called Self-Sufficiency.  We don’t depend on anyone or anything.  This is the core of who we are.  Of course, this closes us off from God as well as others.  There is a price to pay.

The gods we worship go by names like Possessions.  We can tell ourselves that we deserve the latest fashions, the most cutting edge gadgets, a beautiful house, a great car.  We can wind up orienting our lives around these things and living for these things while we miss out on the real joy of life.

We can serve a god called Work, but there can be a price to pay.  Workaholism can be costly.

There are any number of gods out there – they go by names like Image and Control and Money and Comfort and Feel No Pain.  But these gods can demand a lot from us.

Is your god worth serving?  A good way to decide is to consider what that god asks of you.  Micah said, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”  Jesus encapsulated God’s demands on us as loving God and loving one’s neighbor as oneself.  This is a God worth serving.

Most of us will not face a once in a lifetime, pyrotechnic event like Elijah.  But we are all asked to go all in on God – to give ourselves completely to the One who created us and loves us and cares for us.  Maybe that happens as we make a daily choice to follow the way of Jesus and to worship the God of love and grace and hope and compassion, leaving those other gods behind.  May it be so.  Amen.

“Putting God at the Center” - November 1, 2015

Texts: 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 6:1-5, Psalm 150

I tend to be a political junkie, and I’ve watched at least a part of all the presidential debates of both parties.  It is hard to stay engaged all the time, but Zoe put me on to fantasy politics.  It’s like fantasy football, but you basically buy shares of candidates that rise and fall based on what all of the thousands of participants think that candidate’s chances of winning the debate are.  (And when I say buy, I mean using the virtual play money you get with the game – I don’t want you to think that I’m gambling on presidential debates.)

The share prices fluctuate wildly during the debate, and so even if you are not that interested in what the candidates are saying, you can be buying and selling and wheeling and dealing throughout the debate. 

Nerdy stuff, I know.  But watching politics is an age-old pastime, dating back to Biblical times and beyond.  We actually got a good dose of it in our scripture this morning.  

Last week we heard the story of Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth.  Ruth, you may remember, is from the country of Moab but she returned with Naomi to Naomi’s home town of Bethlehem, in Israel, after both of their husbands had died.  Ruth married Boaz, a relative of her deceased husband, and Ruth becomes the grandmother of Jesse and the great-grandmother of King David.

Ruth and Naomi lived in the time of the judges - leaders of Israel under a decentralized form of government.  A judge was not a hereditary position.  Some of the judges are fairly familiar names to us.  There was Gideon, who defeated the Midianite army with only 300 men equipped with trumpets.  There was Samson, of Samson and Delilah fame.  And there was Deborah, who judged over Israel and was a prophet and warrior.  It is amazing that around 1000 BC, a woman was chosen to lead Israel.  Three thousand years later, plenty of countries still haven’t done that.

But the people in time grew tired of judges.  Breaking tradition, Samuel in his old age had named two of his sons to succeed him as judges.  Samuel’s sons were corrupt, known to take bribes, and generally a piece of work, and that was it.  The people wanted to have a king, like all the other nations.

The people were warned that a king would take their sons as soldiers and their daughters as domestic staff, that he would take their best fields and olive groves and cattle and sheep and horses and that a king would tax them heavily to support his lifestyle.  It was a “be careful what you ask for” kind of deal, a warning to the people, but the people were insistent.  They wanted a king.  So God said, “All right, you can have a king, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Saul was the first king.  It started out all right, and Saul certainly looked the part, but in time he turned from God and proved to be a poor leader.  So God looked for a new king and chose the shepherd boy David.  As a youth, David defeated the Philistine giant Goliath.  He became a musician in Saul’s court; when Saul had a troubled spirit David would play the harp for him.  As he grew older David became a great military leader.  But Saul became jealous of David’s success and popularity.  Saul became paranoid and tried to kill David.  It led to a civil war.  In the end, Saul died in battle along with three of his sons, including Jonathan, who was David’s best friend.

David becomes king of Judah, the southernmost tribe, while Ish-bosheth, the remaining son of Saul, is installed as king of the northern tribes of Israel.  After protracted fighting, David is finally victorious.

This is the rather long back story to our scripture for today.  In the wake of Ish-bosheth’s death, the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah are united.  David then leads Israel in battle, capturing the Jebusite fortress of Jerusalem and establishing it as capital of a united Israel.

David consolidates power in the new capital and is a popular leader.  He is magnanimous toward Saul’s remaining family and supporters.  He is faithful and a person of integrity; the Bible describes him as “a man after God’s own heart.”  In terms of building national unity and encouraging faithful worship, there is one symbolic act remaining: bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem.  

If nothing else, you probably know about the Ark of the Covenant from the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The ark contained the law – the Ten Commandments on the stone tablets Moses had brought down from Mt. Sinai.  But the ark was more than that – it represented the very presence of God.  It was the holiest and most precious treasure of the Hebrew people.

During Saul’s wars, the Philistines had won a battle and carried off the ark to the Philistine city of Ashdod.  But it had not gone well for them; the people of the city were afflicted with mice and hemorrhoids.  How’s that for a plague?  So the ark was sent to another city, but the citizens there suffered the same result.  The Philistines decided they wanted  no part of the ark and sent it back to the Israelites along with what was basically a “we’re sorry” offering of five golden mice and five golden hemorrhoids.  (Anybody who thinks the Bible is dull just needs to read it a little more.)

The ark was now on the fringes of Israel, basically just sitting on a farm.  David decides to retrieve the ark and bring it back to the center of Israelite life and worship, to the new capital city of Jerusalem.  It is an occasion of unbridled joy.  There is great rejoicing with instruments and singing and dancing and exuberant celebration, with King David himself leading the way. 

The story of David’s rise to power speaks to us in several ways.  First, it says something about the nature of leadership.  Just looking at things pragmatically, David was a shrewd politician.  The way that Ish-bosheth, Saul’s son who had been king of the northern kingdom, came to an end is that a couple of assassins took him out.  That is the way the long civil war ended.  Thinking that this would please David, they brought Ish-bosheth’s head to David.  

Guess what? David was not pleased.  He had never wanted this civil war, he had never wanted to fight Saul, and this is not the way the war was supposed to be fought.  There was an honorable way to do things and this was not it.  To him, Saul was more of a sad and tragic figure than an enemy, and even if Ish-bosheth led an opposing army, this was Saul’s son.  So rather than being pleased, he had the two assassins executed.

I know, the story is filled with violence and in places it reads like a movie script.  You can say whatever else you want, but what David does is politically smart.  This helped to bring Saul’s people on board.  For those who supported Ish-bosheth, David doesn’t have to be the bad guy.  David comes off as an honorable king.

Likewise, the move to Jerusalem was brilliant.  First, everyone said that Jerusalem couldn’t be captured, that it was essentially an impregnable fortress, but David captured it anyway, which made him look pretty good.  Moving the capital there showed political smarts.  It was a neutral site, so to speak, not identified with any of the tribes in particular.  It was a little like establishing Washington DC as our nation’s capital.  It’s not in any state but is its own district.  The move to Jerusalem would cut down on complaints of favoritism for David’s tribe, or any other.  It would be a shared capital, truly a national capital, and none of the tribes could claim special status or ownership.

And then bringing the ark to Jerusalem cemented this new capital as the center of national life.  The ark was a matter of national pride.  It harked back to the time of Moses.  It was a symbol of God’s presence with the people.  There is no question but that David was a shrewd political operative.  When it came to ruling, when it came to building a nation and getting the people on board, David knew what he was doing.  In fantasy politics, I would definitely buy stock in David. 

To say that David was a smooth political operator is not necessarily a bad thing.  We don’t have to view his actions in a cynical or opportunistic light.  David can be seen as truly doing what is best for the nation.  He was setting a model of integrity and fairness, a model of equality among people and tribes.  He is beginning a reign in which, at least at the outset, all people matter, a reign in which truth and integrity are front and center.  And above all, he is establishing a kingdom in which he will put God first.    

After Ish-bosheth died, the leaders of all the tribes of Israel came to David and said, “We are your bone and flesh.  For some time under Saul, you were really the one who led Israel.  The Lord made you to be the shepherd of Israel.”  And they anointed David king.

The people had been warned before that a king would take, take, take.  Take their sons, their daughters, their servants, their flocks, their fields, their horses.  This is what kings do.  But David is supposed to be a shepherd to Israel.  One who will give, give, give.  One who protects.  One who nurtures, shelters, provides food.  To be a shepherd of the people is a huge shift in what it means to be a king.  It’s a tough assignment.  David has royal power, but he has the responsibility to use that power not for himself but for the sake of others, for the sake of the nation, to further God’s kingdom.

David will struggle with the right use of power, struggle mightily at times.  Time and again, God will hold him accountable.  Because of choices that he makes, David will experience heartache and tragedy.  Because even the king is accountable.  Even the king has a king.

This leads us to the ark.  The Ark of the Covenant had been taken away by the Philistines.  It is in Israel, but barely, basically abandoned on Abinadab’s farm.  David brings the Ark to the center of Hebrew life, to the center of the nation.  Representing God’s very presence, the Israelites were reminded that in the end, God was the one with real power.  God was the one who was finally in control.

This confronts us with the question, “Where is God in our lives?”  Is God on the fringes, off to the side, out in the boonies at the end of a dirt road, as it were, or is God right in the thick of things?  Is God at the center?

Do we set aside an hour every Sunday for worship and then set God off to the side for the rest of the week?  Or do we see God as being with us in all times and places – with us in the good and the bad, both in times of joy and times of sorrow?

Putting God at the center means that we develop the values and the practices and try to follow the ways of Jesus even in the midst of thorny problems at work, even when dealing with painful situations in our family, even when facing disappointment, even in the midst of financial challenges and crushed hopes and broken relationships.  Or even when leading a nation, as was the case for David.

It’s not easy, to be sure.  But we can begin to put God at the center as we give ourselves to God in worship.

Psalm 150 is the last of the Psalms.  Some scholars think that it was added to the collection as a fitting conclusion of praise to God – a kind of capstone on the Psalms.  It is attributed to King David, who was not only a shepherd and military leader and ruler, but as we have said, a skilled musician.

Praise God in the sanctuary, praise God in the firmament, or the expanse of the heavens.  Praise is to be offered not only here within these walls as we gather for worship, but over all of creation.  Praise God with trumpet and lute and harp and tambourine and dance, with strings and pipes and cymbals.  Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
The way we orient our lives toward God, the way we can move God toward the center of our lives, is through worship.   

This morning we will gather at the Lord’s Table as we share together in communion, celebrating God’s love for us and God’s presence with us.  Brian Wren is an English hymn writer – we sing some of his hymns.  He was leading a workshop on worship at a church in the U.S. that concluded with a communion service.  They were taking communion by intinction – tearing some bread off of the loaf and dipping it in the cup.

This was a church where things were done decently and in order – they cared about decorum and the dignity of worship.  As worshipers came to the front for communion, they were tearing off tiny little pieces of bread and then very carefully dipping them in the cup.  But a little girl was in line and it came her turn.  She tore off a big old hunk of bread and then kind of sloshed it in the cup and ate it. 

People were offended – they thought it was completely inappropriate.  But Brian Wren said that she was the only one who came admitting her need, the only one who expected to be fed, and the only one who found joy in the meal.

Worship can change us.  All of us - even kings.  We bring our need and we can find joy and hope and healing.  And God can meet the deep hunger in our hearts.

We are like the Israelites.  In worship we are reminded that God is at the center of our world and the center of our lives.  We are also like David – we are both broken and blessed, saints and sinners at the same time, and we are loved by God, the true king, the real power, who calls us to be the givers – who calls us to be the shepherds of this world.  Amen.