Friday, July 26, 2013

“The Neighborhood” - July 28, 2013

Text: Luke 10:25-37

It all begins when a lawyer puts a question to Jesus.  (We all know how pesky those lawyers can be.)  He asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Perhaps this guy is one of many who disapproved of Jesus and was playing “gotcha,” trying to get Jesus to say something that would get him in trouble.  But we don’t know that; maybe he admired Jesus and was honestly interested in Jesus’ opinion.

For his part, Jesus answers the question with a question of his own.  What does the law say?  How do you read it?  What do you think? 

And the lawyer answered with the commandment known as the Shema: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus says simply, “You have given the right answer.  Do this and you will live.”  But the scripture says that the lawyer, wanting to justify himself, asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”  Again, maybe the lawyer is playing games, but there is this question hanging over him, and really hanging over all of us: How far should my concern and compassion extend?  Where do we draw the line?  It is one thing to say, “Love your neighbor,” but in real life, things are complicated.

First-century Judaism had boundaries with specific rules about how Jews should treat Gentiles and Samaritans, how men should relate to women, how priests should relate to everyday Israelites, and so on.  These rules were considered vital to social order and were not just socially appropriate, but a religious duty.  The question “who is my neighbor” was a real, live question.

And in response, Jesus tells a story, the story we are all familiar with – probably the best known of all of Jesus’ parables.  A man is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho.  It is a notoriously dangerous road that descends through several narrow passes, all of which made for easy hiding for robbers.  And sure enough, the man on this journey was beaten, stripped, robbed, and left for dead in the ditch.

Fortunately, a priest was coming down the road, and he saw the man.  But we are surprised to hear that he walked on by.  Maybe he couldn’t have been bothered, but on the other hand the guy bleeding in the ditch was ritually unclean.  And then a Levite, a temple official, came traveling down the road.  He saw the injured man, but he too passed on by.  It’s hard to blame him too much; it was dangerous to stop on this road.  Maybe it was a setup.  Maybe the injured man was part of a gang of robbers.  The best way to help might be to get out of there alive and alert the authorities.  So the Levite passed on by. 

Then a third traveler comes down the road.  Most everybody knew how the story would end.  The priest didn’t stop and the temple official didn’t stop.  The high-up, important people didn’t stop, but an everyday Joe would stop and help the man.

But that is not how the story went.  A third traveler came along, but this man was a Samaritan.  Samaritans were descended from Jews in the Northern kingdom of Israel who had intermarried with Assyrians.  They had their own temple at Mt. Gerazim.  They were considers blasphemers and heretics, and the fact that they were cousins to the Jews made it even worse. 

And so it wasn’t the priest or the Levite, but a despised Samaritan who helped this man.  He bandages his wounds, puts him on his own donkey, and brings him to an inn.  He cares for him that night, and the next morning he pays the innkeeper to take care of him, promising to pay any additional bill. 

After telling the story, Jesus put the question to the lawyer: which of these three travelers proved to be a neighbor to the man in need?  It’s glaringly obvious, but the lawyer can’t even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan.”  He says, “The one who showed mercy.”  And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”

Two good questions had been asked.  “How do I inherit eternal life?” and “Who is my neighbor?”  Two good answers have been given.  Two men are in complete agreement--Jesus and the lawyer totally agree on the answers.  But Jesus response, “Go and do likewise,” highlights for us that this is not a theoretical exercise.  It is not an abstract idea.  What really matters is the way we live.

We generally read this story and come away with the thought that we need to be Good Samaritans.  We need to reach out in love and help people who are in the ditch, whether they have literally been robbed and beaten or whether it is more a case of being beaten down by life.  And this is important.  We consider it part and parcel of Christian faith – acting with mercy and compassion.  Jesus’ listeners are shocked because it is the despised Samaritan who is the example of faithful living.

Clarence Jordan was a New Testament scholar who among other things wrote the Cottonpatch Gospels, a translation of the New Testament that sets the scriptures in the American South.  In 1942 Jordan started Koinonia Farms, an interracial Christian community near Americus, Georgia.  Jordan was just a tower of strength who faced deep-seated hatred and the constant threat of violence because of his racial views, and more than that because of his actions.

Millard Fuller was a very wealthy person who had lost his way, lost a sense of meaning in his life and was about to lose his marriage.  He and his wife decided to start over.  They gave away their wealth and began a life of Christian service.  They visited with Clarence Jordan and influenced by Jordan, they started Habitat for Humanity in 1976, with a vision of providing decent housing for God’s people in need. 

Today, Habitat has built over 600,000 homes for more than 3 million people in the U.S. and around the world.  Some of those have been built here in Story County. 

Now, one thing that makes Habitat really work is that it is not just a handout.  It is not just charity.  Homeowners purchase that Habitat homes.  They put in sweat equity and make mortgage payments.  Volunteers working on the home are not building for the homeowner, they are building with the homeowner.

And this brings us back to the Good Samaritan.  Jesus says, “Love your neighbor.”  The lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus answers with a story.  The neighbor is the one who helps.  That is the person we are to love – the heathen, despised Samaritan who acts in mercy toward us.  Guess who that makes us? 

We usually read the story and identify with the Samaritan, and that is OK.  That is valuable, and we are called to help people in need.  But the way that Jesus tells the story and responds to the lawyer, I think the point is that we are the person in the ditch.  We’re all in the ditch.  We’re all in need.  In our need, God has reached out to us, and unless we have acknowledged our need, we can’t really receive God’s gifts.

We are all in the ditch.  Now, when you are in the ditch, you don’t care so much who is helping you out.  If you have been in an accident and you are on the side of the road, you don’t care what somebody looks like or where they went to school or the kind of car they drive.  When you are in the ditch, you don’t really care about rules and regulations and custom and class and race and political affiliation.  You just need help.

Habitat works so well because it recognizes that we are all in the ditch, in one way or another, or we all could be. 

Over the years I have visited a Habitat build on the Lower East Side of Manhattan – they were renovating a large apartment building into Habitat homes.  Susan and I helped build a Habitat house in Charleston, South Carolina after Hurricane Hugo – this was before Zoe was born so it’s been a little while.  I worked on a Habitat home in Sullivan, Illinois, and I have been honored to work with Habitat here.  Many of you have worked on a house or provided food or given to support the work of Habitat, and some of you have put a great deal of time into working with Habitat.

At every Habitat site I have worked at, there was this sense that nobody has to be an expert, we all have something to offer, something to contribute, and it wasn’t so much we are building a house for Bill or Sarah or Denise; we are building a house with them.   It works because there is this sense that everyone is in it together.

The story of the Good Samaritan tells us that there is a lot more to Christian love and mercy than giving a few dollars to worthy causes.  I mean, that is important, and we need to be generous in giving.  But for all we know, the priest and Levite were big givers.  And it is easy to cultivate this paternalistic attitude that we are such good people for helping those poor people who are less fortunate than we are.

When Jesus says, “Go and do likewise,” it can be read two ways.  It can mean “Be generous, be like the Samaritan.”  But since the question is “Who is my neighbor” and the answer is “the Samaritan,” then we are the person in the ditch, and “Go and do likewise” can mean, “Ask for help.  Accept care and compassion extended to you.  And broaden your definition of neighbor.”

The story of the Good Samaritan leads us to an attitude of mutuality – we are all neighbors, we all give and we all receive from each other according to our gifts and our opportunities and our needs.  Living in this way keeps us from a paternalistic attitude of “helping the poor,” but it also helps us to celebrate a common humanity in which each has gifts to offer.  We gratefully share with others as we have been blessed, but we also gratefully receive from others as we have need. 

I read a story several days ago that has haunted me all week.  Samuel Wells, a pastor in England, vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London, went to visit a woman who had left the church many years ago and wanted to come back.

As it turned out, this woman was in her 90’s and had left the church as a teenager.  She had decided to give the church a second chance and was finally coming back after all these years.  The vicar tried to do the pastoral thing, asking what it was that had kept her away from church for so long.

“It was when we wanted to get married,” the woman said.  “We were in love.  The rector wouldn’t marry us.”

It sounded like there might be a story here.  “So was there something wrong?” the vicar asked.  “Had your husband been married previously, or were you too young, maybe?”

“No,” she said calmly, and the vicar realized that the woman was trying hard not to come across as patronizing or angry.  “The rector looked at my hand,” she said.  You see, I worked in a mill.  I had this accident when I was 16.”  She held up her hand.  The last three fingers were missing.  “The rector said that since I didn’t have a finger to put the ring on, he wouldn’t marry us.”

This pastor said that the color drained from his face.  It’s stunning, isn’t it?  This was so absurd that he quickly realized no one could have made it up; it had to be true. 

It is hard to imagine anyone who was treated in this way going back to the church, even after 75 years.  After trying to compose himself, Wells said, “May I ask what brings you back to the church now?”

The woman said, “God’s bigger than the church.  I’ll be dead soon.  The Lord’s Prayer says forgive if you want to be forgiven.  So that’s what I’ve decided to do.”  (from the July 24 issue of Christian Century).

I have heard some awful church stories, but this is about the worst.  For the priest, it was a ghastly misunderstanding of grace under the guise of some kind of literal upholding of natural law.  No finger - no marriage.

On the one hand, a horrific focus on arbitrary rules, unbending, unfeeling, unkind, yes – unchristian.  That priest didn’t ask himself, “What would Jesus do?”  And then there is the mine worker, willing after all these years to forgive, willing to give the church another chance.  The Samaritan knew more about grace and mercy than the priest and Levite.  The mine worker knew a lot more about grace than the rector.

Many of you know Mike and Emily Slade, who were in our church for a time after moving to Ames before Emily went to be Associate Pastor at Boone.  The Slades moved to Indiana this week, where Mike will be teaching chemistry at my alma mater, the University of Evansville.  We saw the Slades before they left town.  Caleb, now 3, was in rare form.  He was like an 8-track player that just kept looping the same songs – Jesus Loves Me, The ABC Song, and Mister Rogers.  Singing on and on.  Caleb loves Rogers.  He would sing, “Won’t you be, won’t you be, please won’t you be my neighbor.”

Mister Rogers was on to something.  We need neighbors and we need to be neighbors.  The Good Samaritan expands our definition of neighbor.  The neighborhood is a lot bigger than we thought.  Because we are all in the ditch, we all have needs, and we all have something to offer.  The neighbor is the one who shows mercy.  And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”  Amen. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

“Elisha and Naaman: The Road to Healing" - July 21, 2013

Text: 2 Kings 5:1-14

Last week, we watched as Elijah was carried to heaven in a whirlwind, on board a chariot of fire. Elisha stood watching and after Elijah was gone, he took up the mantle of Elijah. Elisha was now the prophet in Israel.

There is a story that comes later in that same chapter that doesn’t appear in the lectionary and I have never heard a sermon on it, and I seriously doubt that you have. You won’t be hearing a sermon on it today, either, but it is a memorable story, and since we have been taking several weeks now to look at Elijah and Elisha, I thought it would be a shame if I didn’t at least mention this story – I don’t know when else we would have a chance.
Here is what happened: Elisha, the man of God, the brand new top prophet in Israel, was traveling when some small boys made fun of him. “Go away, Baldyhead!” they yelled at him. “Go away, Baldyhead!” I’m sure they thought they were really clever. I remember when I was in sixth grade or so, I went on a trip with my friend Monty and his family. On the long car ride, we wrote poems about our dads. We called them Baldo and Baldino, the Baldwin brothers. I remember one poem: “Traveling through Newbern, Baldino doesn’t show much concern.” Really excellent, riveting stuff.

But what goes around comes around, and when I first became an American Baptist, I was an interim pastor in Lincoln, Illinois. We lived in Bloomington, and one day, just for fun, I decided to take the Amtrak train to work – it was about a 35-mile ride.

I got off the train and walked to the church. And as I walked past the junior high, I heard some kid yell from the second floor – I had to stop to be sure I had heard correctly – and the kid yells again, “Where’s your hair?” Can you believe that?

Elijah cursed the kids who made fun of him. I didn’t curse the kid in Lincoln, but I thought about it. The story in scripture turned a lot more serious than my little encounter in Lincoln, Illinois: Elisha cursed these boys, and then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled 42 youths.

It doesn’t make you want to think kindly of Elisha, does it? It seems like if you were really a man of God, you wouldn’t need to be cursing children. And then there is this matter of proportionality. Maybe it’s just me, but the punishment seems pretty unreasonable considering the offense.

What kind of story is this and what is it doing in the Bible? Presumable this story is included in the Book of Kings to emphasize that Elisha is the man of God and you better not mess with him. There are several really nifty miracles he performs included along with this dark kind of story. Beyond that, I think it is safe to say, the point of the story is obvious: don’t make fun of Baldyheads.

Well, this probably wasn’t a good way to start a sermon, but it’s too late now. But maybe this just illustrates that there is a lot of really fascinating stuff in the Bible, and we don’t get all of it in Sunday morning sermons.

Well, our text for today comes from 2 Kings chapter 5. We are introduced to Naaman, the commander of the powerful army of Aram, which is Syria today. Aram and Israel were often at war, but for the time being they were at peace. Aram had a stronger army, however, and Israel knew it.
Naaman was a military hero and next to the king, the most powerful person in all of the country. But there was a problem. Naaman had a skin disease. This was not quite as big a problem for Naaman as it would have been if he were a Jew, but it still seriously affected his life. As an important leader, he hobnobbed with heads of state, but there was always that awkward moment when he met someone for the first time. Some handled it well, but some could not hide their shock or disgust or repulsion. He had learned to put both hands behind his back and do a kind of slight bow, so as to avoid extending his hand to others.

His power and position had not insulated him from the effects of this disease. He had gone from doctor to doctor seeking help for his affliction. But nothing helped, and he was getting desperate.

During a successful military campaign a few years back, an Israelite girl had been taken captive, and she was now Naaman’s wife’s servant. And she tells Naaman’s wife that there is a great prophet in her home country, back in Israel, who might be able to cure him. It says something about the depth of Naaman’s desperation that he listened to the advice of this slave girl. The very idea was preposterous: all of the king’s physicians had been unable to help him, and he was going to seek help from an Israelite prophet?

It was preposterous. And yes, Naaman immediately pursues this possibility. Once you have run out of respectable doctors, once you have tried everything they have prescribed – the pills, the treatments, the therapy, the ointments, the positive imaging, and nothing has changed – then you are willing to try alternative treatments, anything that holds just a bit of promise. You are willing to go see the veterinarian in Mexico with a new treatment that works on humans. You make a beeline for the faith healer to whom people are ascribing miracles. If you really want to be healed, you won’t leave any stone unturned – even if the stone was a prophet in Israel.

Naaman mentions the servant’s suggestion to the king, and to his surprise, the king thinks it’s a great idea. To pave the way, the king of Aram sends a letter for Naaman to take with him to the king of Israel.

Naaman has no idea how much it costs to be healed of leprosy. Just like today, you couldn’t find it on the doctor’s website. So he empties his bank account. He takes with him 750 pounds of silver, 150 pounds of gold, and ten new suits. He was willing to spend it all.

Naaman arrives at the palace and presents the letter that the king has written. “I have sent Naaman to you,” the letter said, “so that you may cure him of leprosy.” And the king of Israel was scared to death. He freaked out. “What, you think I can just cure leprosy?” he asks. He was obviously being set up. When he failed to provide the cure, Aram would have an excuse, a pretense, to beat up on Israel again. It was a potentially dangerous situation, and the king tears his clothes as a sign of his despair.

News of what had happened was soon all over, and word reached Elisha the prophet. He sent a message to the king of Israel. “Send this guy on over to me,” Elisha says.

It’s interesting that this slave girl, a captive in a foreign land, has heard of the prophet Elisha and believes he can heal Naaman – but the king seems clueless about this. King Jehoram had ascended to the throne about the time that Elisha succeeded Elijah. Elijah, he knew. He apparently didn’t know Elisha yet – but he certainly would.

Naaman and his whole entourage go to the house of Elisha. As commander of the Aramean army, he expects to be treated with dignity and respect. Naaman wasn’t sure about the protocol, but expected that the prophet would come out to him. He was surprised that Elisha did not rush out to receive him. And instead of being received with honor by Elisha, this Israelite prophet finally just sends out a servant.

Naaman, the commander of the Aramean army, arrives at the home of an Israelite prophet, and the prophet doesn’t even bother to see him! This had to be the biggest thing that had happened in these parts in years, and this prophet just blows him off. A scrawny messenger boy comes out and tells Naaman to go dip in the Jordan River seven times, and you will be clean.

It was a slap in the face is what it was. Elisha’s prescription was no better than his bedside manner. The Jordan River was really not much more than a muddy creek. It was shallow and foul-smelling. If you dipped seven times in the Jordan River, you were likely to get a skin disease.

Naaman is furious. He has come all this way, gone to all this trouble, brought all these expensive gifts, just to have the servant of an Israelite prophet tell him to go dip in a godforsaken mudhole. If he were going to wash in a river, they had way better rivers back home. Of all the nerve!

Naaman said, “I thought the prophet would come out, and wave his hands and call on his God, and say mysterious words to cure the leprosy. I thought there would be drama. I thought there would be spectacle. I thought it would be a big production!” And Naaman stormed off in a rage.

For the second time, it is not the mighty and powerful people, but a lowly servant who saves the day and points Naaman towards healing. His servants realize that he is not angry as much as he is hurt. They approach him and say, “Look, if the prophet had asked you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it? So why not at least do this simple thing that he asks?”

Naaman would have paid 900 pounds of silver and gold. He traveled to Israel and would have traveled anywhere. He would have undertaken difficult assignments. He would have endured painful treatments. That, he was willing to do. But a cheap cure, an easy cure – he wasn’t ready for that.

But Naaman really can’t argue with the logic of his servants, so he does it. He goes to the muddy waters of the Jordan, and immerses himself seven times in the water.

Naaman’s problem was, as they say, more than skin-deep. He has a problem with pride. The text says, “He went down,” and he really did have to go down. He had to stoop to taking advice from an Israelite slave girl, then he went down to Jerusalem, and then even further down to the prophet in Samaria. He had to lower himself to be set straight by his own servants, and finally he was asked to go down into the muddy waters of the Jordan.

When it came to healing, his power and fame and social standing did not help him. His royal connections, his reputation, even his bags of silver and gold did not help. Elisha wouldn’t even come out to meet him. And now he had been asked to perform a ridiculous and utterly stupid act. But because he wanted to be healed badly enough, because he had reached rock bottom, because he was desperate, because there was nothing to lose, because he had come this far and had already tried everything he could think of, he went along with the prophet’s instructions.

He went down in the greenish, fishy-smelling, muddy water again and again, and on the seventh time, as he emerged from the water, his skin was clean and new, like that of a child. Naaman was healed.

Afterwards, he tried to pay Elisha. But Elisha wouldn’t take his money. “Your money’s no good here,” he said. “God works for free.”

In the end, his power and fame and connections and money did not matter. None of it mattered. Jesus sent out 70 disciples and instructed them to travel light, with no cash, no luggage, no extra clothes. Naaman brought all of this stuff but it did not help him. It was only the power of God that made him well.

“The Doctor” was a movie starring William Hurt as a physician who is diagnosed with throat cancer. As a teacher in the med school, he is used to people following his commands. He is in control and in charge, and he is not used to being a patient.

As a patient, he finds that he has to do a lot of waiting. He is treated like anybody else and has to go by other people’s schedules, not his own. He is not used to feeling unimportant; he is not used to all the indignities of being a patient. In the course of his treatment, he becomes friends with a fellow patient who teaches him a great deal about living and about dying. He makes a full recovery, while she does not.

When he returns to his teaching position, one of the first class projects is to assign a bed to each student and to attach a hypothetical disease to each of them. Each make-believe patient has to undergo all of the tests associated with that disease. The nurses, much more familiar than doctors with the day-to-day care of patients, seem pleased.

This doctor was not only cured, he was healed. He experienced a conversion of sorts, and returns to his profession, both a changed man and a much better doctor.

We can only hope it was that way for Naaman. He was cured of his illness, and we have to hope that in the process, he was healed as well, that he learned humility, learned to listen to others, learned to trust less in wealth and power and celebrity and insider status.

Naaman’s story speaks to us because we all have vulnerable places in our lives. We all long for wholeness and healing. And to really find healing, we have to humble ourselves—not to think less of ourselves, but to see ourselves as we really are. We may think we can handle everything all by ourselves, but we can’t. We have tried and it doesn’t work.

When the crises of life come – whether it be cancer or unemployment or marital problems or struggles with our children or failing health of parents or the challenges of aging or any of those hard times that come our way - we realize that it takes more than we have. It takes giving up control and listening to others and allowing others to be there for us and with us and it takes placing our faith in God.

Crises in life may bring us down, but we can find healing in unexpected places. The road to healing is not always straightforward; it certainly wasn’t for Naaman. But we can find, like Naaman, that when we go down, God can lift us up to new life. Amen. 

(for this sermon I drew inspiration from Barbara Brown Taylor's sermon, "The Cheap Cure.")

Friday, July 12, 2013

“Elijah and Elisha: Taking Up the Mantle” - July 14, 2013

Text: 2 Kings 2:1-13, Galatians 5:1, 13-25

I had not been in town long when I heard about Rev. Plummer.  Ken Plummer had been pastor at the Methodist church in town for 40 years.  Forty years!  That is a long time for anybody to be pastor of the same church and absolutely unheard-of for a Methodist in a small-town church, as they are generally moved to a new parish every few years.

When you are pastor for forty years in the same place, you can’t help but make your mark.  Rev. Plummer’s influence was felt in the entire community.

Rev. Plummer died before I moved to town.  He had retired several years before that, but even in retirement, he still did a lot of weddings and funerals, still was active in Rotary, still very influential in the community.

In this small town, other than the principal or school superintendent or high school basketball or football coach, the pastor of the Methodist church had perhaps the most public, high-profile job.  It was the biggest church in town, with a lot of business people and community leaders.

Ken Plummer was a tough act to follow, made even harder by the fact that he was still around, serving as supply preacher or interim pastor for any church that needed it.  The fact that he did interims was ironic in that Methodists don’t generally have interim pastors themselves.  One minister leaves and the district superintendent immediately sends another.

Well, that’s not exactly true.  Methodists generally don’t officially have interim pastors.  While his title wasn't Interim Pastor, the poor guy who followed Ken Plummer was an interim pastor, make no mistake about it.  There was no way he could follow a living legend. 

When I arrived in town, Ken Plummer had been dead for a few years and retired several years before that, but he still influenced the town.  Shortly after I arrived, a member of our church died.  He had not been an active member for some time, and I had not yet met him.  The family asked the Methodist pastor to do the service.  They didn’t know the Methodist pastor either, but they asked him to do the funeral because everybody liked Rev. Plummer so much.  Never mind that the Methodists were now on their third pastor since Rev. Plummer.

Some people can be a tough act to follow.  The prophet Elijah would definitely fall into that category.  Elijah would out-Plummer Kenneth Plummer.  People remembered his exploits, like the time that he defeated the hundreds of prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel, calling down fire from heaven.

People remembered things like that.  Elijah was considered the greatest prophet ever.  Oh, he wasn’t perfect, far from it, but all in all, he had been a towering figure.  At the Passover meal, Jews would come to set an extra place at the table for Elijah, because it is thought that he could turn up on Passover to announce the arrival of the Messiah.  It was Elijah, along with Moses, who appeared to Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.

God had told Elijah to find Elisha, who would be his successor as the chief prophet.  In our scripture a couple of weeks ago, almost as an aside but in one of those foreshadowing moments, Elisha was out working in the fields, and Elijah walked by and threw his mantle—his cloak—over him.  Elijah just kept walking so Elisha had to run after him.  When all was said and done, Elisha became Elijah’s assistant, his apprentice.

In our text for today, we have come to the end of Elijah’s life.  King Ahab was now gone, having died in battle.  Queen Jezebel no longer ruled; she would suffer a violent death and the dogs would lick up her blood in the streets, just as Elijah had said.  Ahab’s son Ahaziah had succeeded him; he had a short and miserable reign and was followed by his brother Jehoram, who was only marginally better.  Elijah’s work really wasn’t finished, but then a prophet’s work is never done, and his time was passing.  He knew it, and Elisha knew it, and the rest of the company of prophets knew it.

Elijah sets out on a road trip.  Along the way, he keeps asking Elisha to stay as he travels on, but again and again Elisha says, “I will not leave you.”  Elisha just refused to leave him.

Why did Elijah want to travel on alone?  It’s hard to say.  Maybe he wanted to spare his young disciple the pain of goodbye.  Or maybe he wanted to spare himself.  But time and again, Elisha vows not to leave Elijah.

At the Jordan, Elijah takes his mantle, the one he had thrown over Elisha to anoint him as his successor, and rolls it up.  He strikes the water with it, and it parts, like Moses and the children of Israel crossing the Red Sea.  They cross to the other side and find themselves alone.

Finally, Elijah speaks of what is coming.  “Tell me what I may do for you before I am taken from you,” he says.

How would you answer a question like that?  What could have been going through Elisha’s head?  What does he need?  He needs to know that he can carry on, he needs to know that he is up to the task, he needs to know that he won’t fall on his face.  He needs to know how to be a leader, because until now he has been a follower. 

What he ends up asking for seems like a big request.  “Please let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,” he says.

Well, the mathematics of it makes sense.  Elisha feels he is half the man, half the prophet Elijah is, and so he will need a double portion of Elijah’s spirit just to break even.

Beyond that, there was the inheritance tradition of the culture where the eldest son would receive a double share of the inheritance.  If we think of the company of prophets as Elijah’s children, then for Elisha to receive a double inheritance of Elijah’s spirit would mean that Elisha was indeed recognized as Elijah’s eldest son and successor.

“You have asked a hard thing,” says Elijah, who apparently was given to understatement.  It was a hard thing for two reasons:  First, because Elijah did not have the power to grant Elisha’s request.  It was God’s decision.  God had told Elijah to anoint Elisha in the first place, and it was God who would confirm that choice, who would decide whether Elisha had proven worthy of the call.

And second, it was a hard thing because Elijah’s job was a difficult one.  The prophet’s job was to speak truth to power, and the powers did not always take kindly to this.  It could get a prophet in trouble.  It could be a lonely and very trying vocation.

Elijah gives a strange response: “If you see me as I am taken up from you, it will be granted; if not it will not.”  In advance, this makes no sense, but afterwards Elisha understands.

As they continue to walk and talk, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separate the two and take Elijah away in a whirlwind.  When he could no longer see Elijah, Elisha tore his shirt in two in the traditional expression of mourning.

Seeing Elijah taken up in a chariot of fire brought it home to Elisha: now it was his turn.  Now it was up to him.  Now he was the prophet in Israel.  Elisha picks up Elijah’s mantle.  Now he is the prophet in Israel.

If nothing else this morning, this scripture may help us to be a bit more Biblically literate.  There are so many expressions in our language that come from the Bible, and the origins of many of these expressions are understood by fewer and fewer people, because fewer and fewer people are familiar with scripture.  There was a movie a number of years back that I’m sure many of you have seen, “Chariots of Fire.” And there is this expression of “taking up the mantle.”  Now you know where they both come from.

Elijah has an intuitive sense of time.  He knows when the time is right; he knows when the time has come.
We are all like Elijah in that our time will come.  Chances are we will not be taken up in a chariot of fire, but our time will come.  Elijah does not fight it or deny it, but moves toward it.  Death comes for all of us, and we all do well not to deny it or refuse to face up to it.

We live in a death-denying culture; we don’t want to talk about it or think about it, but our fear of death can create barriers between us and loved ones.  Our denial of death can keep our focus away from God’s care that extends even beyond this life.

On the other hand, I have known folks advanced in years who have said something like, “I have lived a good life, God has blessed me, I’m ready to go, I don’t fear dying.”  Those who can say that have a peace about them that helps them to truly live all of their days.

While he knew his time had come, Elijah demonstrated a concern for Elisha, his son in the service of God and his successor as God’s prophet.  As he left this earth, he was still thinking of Elisha. 

We can learn something from Elijah, but many of us may relate to Elisha in feeling that we may not quite be up to the task before us. 

When my grandmother died, my mom and dad became the oldest generation in the family.  Now my mom’s brother and all of her cousins are gone, and 8 of my dad’s nine siblings are gone, so they are not just the oldest generation but pretty well the only ones of their generation left in the family.  Some of you have had that same experience.

Elijah was taken from Elisha.  Many of us know how that feels.  It may be expected or it may be unexpected, it may come after a long life or it may be when one dies far too young, but however it happens, it is never easy to lose one whom we love.

Elijah was taken up in the whirlwind, carried away by chariots of fire, and Elisha realized that now, it was up to him.  It was his turn.  It was his moment.  And after he can no longer see him, he takes up the mantle of Elijah.

There’s a story about a famous preacher who was a bit of a fraud, because the sermons were great but no one ever realized that in fact they’d all been written by the staff assistant.  Finally the assistant’s patience ran out, and one day the preacher was speaking to thousands of expectant listeners and at the bottom of page two read the stirring words, “And this, my friends, takes us to the very heart of the book of Habakkuk…” only to turn to page three and see nothing but the words, “You’re on your own now.”

“You’re on your own now.”  That’s what Elisha felt the day Elijah departed to heaven.

But in the request that he made, and in God’s response, Elisha finds that he really isn’t alone.  God’s Spirit is with him, empowering him as it did Elijah.  And in a sense, in the training and the experiences and the memories and the tradition that Elijah had left to him – all represented by his mantle – Elijah was still present with Elisha.

We have all been blessed by those who have gone before us.  By grandparents, by parents, teachers, by friends, mentors, coaches.  In this church, we have been blessed by so many people who have shared their gifts.  Youth leaders and choir members, folks who have welcomed newcomers and kept up the facilities and cooked the dinners and provided spiritual leadership and shared a loving and caring presence.

Many of those folks are gone.  They are no longer with us.  We miss their gifts and their spirit, and things are never quite the same without them.  Yet by the way they have blessed us, they continue to have a positive impact on us long after they are gone. 

Elijah is gone, but the good news is, God raises up new leaders.  New teachers and friends and mentors and coaches.  God provides folks with skills and gifts and abilities and ideas.  God provides men and women who offer spiritual leadership and wisdom and discernment and enthusiasm and a loving presence.  And if you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m talking about us.  I’m talking about you and me.  God has given us all the gifts that we need, and they can be found in this room.  It is time for us to take up the mantle. 

Elisha asked for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit.  As followers of Christ, we seek to open ourselves to God’s Spirit, which is made evident to us, as our scripture from Galatians tells us, in things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. 

Elijah is no longer with us.  The prophets and leaders of old are gone.  But God is still here, ready to pour out the Spirit upon us, ready to bless us with good gifts.  And there is that mantle, just waiting to be taken up.

Friday, July 5, 2013

“Elijah, Ahab, and Naboth: What Not to Sell” - July 7, 2013

Text: 1 Kings 21:1-21a

In the summer of 1971, I was 9 years old.  One day I was hanging out with a few neighborhood kids, all of whom happened to be a couple years older than me.  And somehow we got to talking about baseball cards.  Mike Shannon, the St. Louis Cardinals third baseman who had played on their World Series teams, had retired from baseball over the winter because of a kidney disease.   But I had just bought a pack of baseball cards and Mike Shannon’s card was in the pack.

One of the kids, I think it was Ted, wanted to trade me for Mike Shannon.  He offered a great deal: he would give me something like Frank Howard and Bobby Bonds and a couple of other lesser players, all for Mike Shannon.

On paper, it was a really good deal.  Shannon was an OK player but not a big star.  But I didn’t want to trade him.  I had grown up a Cardinal fan.  Many nights I listened to Cardinal games on the radio with my dad on WRAY.  Mike Shannon was a Cardinal and he was retiring and they wouldn’t be making Mike Shannon baseball cards anymore.  I said no, I didn’t want to do it.  “Come on,” Ted said.  “I’ll throw in my doubles of Jerry Koosman and Don Sutton too.” 

When I bought baseball cards, I would usually buy a pack or two at a time.  I wasn’t made of money, and you had to pay 10 cents for a pack for 10 cards and one piece of hard, stale bubble gum.  On the other hand, Ted was older and had more money and he probably bought 10 packs at a time.  He was baseball card-rich.  All of the cards he was offering to trade me were probably doubles – this wasn’t really costing him very much.

It was no doubt a good deal, even a great deal, but… I just didn’t want to do it.  It would be like turning my back on my team, almost like turning my back on my family.  But Ted persisted and the others put the pressure on me too.  Brian and Rick said, “You’re stupid if you don’t make that trade.”  Of course, they weren’t telling Ted he was stupid for making the offer.  In the end, I relented, and made the deal.

But I regretted it and I’ve regretted it ever since.  I bought more baseball cards that summer, but I never saw another Mike Shannon card.  And they never made any more Mike Shannons.  That next season, Shannon started broadcasting Cardinal games on the radio and he is still at it 42 years later.  I don’t know what Don Sutton or Frank Howard are doing.

There are a lot of Mike Shannon baseball card stories out there.  You have probably seen or experienced such a thing yourself.  In fact, we find this same story in today’s Old Testament scripture.  Oh, my version wasn’t as bloody, mine wasn’t a tragic story, but it’s the same theme.

If you have been here the past few weeks as we follow along with the story of Elijah, you have to admit, there is some weird stuff.  There is gore and death and destruction and miraculous power, and that is just in the parts we have read.   You can read these stories and it sounds like another world.  The Bible can really sound like an ancient book.  But at the same time, if we take a step back and view things from a different angle, the Bible can be very contemporary, seemingly “ripped from the headlines,” as they say.

We see today’s scripture time and again.  Ahab Development Corporation wants to build a new Retail/Commercial/ Residential complex.  It will be beautiful, a showcase.  It will bring in lots of revenue - sales tax and property tax, not to mention jobs to the community.

There is only one problem: somebody already lives on that land.  They like their home.  They don’t want to move.  They don’t want to sell the land, even if it is a good price. 

So what happens?  Well, something called eminent domain.  Because there is an overwhelming public interest in the project being built, the government declares that the property is blighted, and while the owners get paid for the property, it is sold to Mr. Ahab.  As it turns out, Mr. Ahab may have contributed to the election campaign of the public officials who made this eminent domain ruling possible, but let’s not bother ourselves with such incidental details.

There is something about power that tends to seek more power.  There is something about wealth that tends to seek more wealth.  There is something about control that tends to seek more control. 

Now, it doesn’t have to be that way.  Power is not bad in itself, and without power we cannot get things done.  Christians should not shy away from power.  We have been exploring a closer relationship with AMOS, which stands for A Mid-Iowa Organizing Strategy.  Part of the purpose of AMOS is to build power in order to bring about positive change.  But the way this is done is through bottom-up, collaborative power, power in numbers, power in community, people power, and this power is used for the common good, particularly on behalf of the weak and vulnerable.

Ahab’s power was different.  It was top-down, it was used to control others, and it was exercised not for the sake of those in need but for his own personal benefit.  When too much power is concentrated in too few hands, bad things happen, and as Lord Acton said, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

There is nothing wrong with wealth.  With money, we can accomplish all kinds of good things.  But if we focus too strongly on accumulating wealth and the things money can buy, we lose sight of others.  We lose sight of people in need.  We start to be controlled by our stuff.

We all want some measure of control.  No one likes feeling out of control.  We want to control our own lives, control our own destiny, but it becomes a problem when we control other people too.

Ahab was king.  He had power, control, and wealth in almost unlimited supply.  He was The Man.  He had it all.  All except for this nearby vineyard that he wanted for a vegetable garden.  It belonged to a man named Naboth.  King Ahab wanted this plot of ground because it was a nice place for a garden and it was near the palace.

Why this mattered so much to Ahab, I don’t know.  I doubt that Ahab was the one who tended the garden.  He had people to do that for him.  If they grew his tomatoes and lettuce and carrots a hundred yards away or a few miles away, I don’t see why it would be a big deal one way or the other.  And I suspect that this really wasn’t so much about the garden plot.

Ahab was used to getting what he wanted.  If Naboth had asked anyone what to do about the king’s request, they might have told him that this was an offer that he couldn’t refuse.  But Naboth didn’t ask for anyone’s advice, and refuse he did.  Not because it wasn’t a fair deal – it was.  The king offered in return a better garden plot, or if Naboth preferred, he would purchase it with cash.  But Naboth wasn’t thinking in terms of dollars and cents, or in terms of bushels of produce he might grow.

Naboth said to Ahab, “I will not give you my ancestral inheritance.”  The understanding was that the land belonged to God, and God had entrusted the land to various families.  This was an inheritance from God and from Naboth’s forebears.  This was land that his parents and grandparents and great-grandparents had lived on, and left to his generation.  It didn’t feel like it was his decision to give up the land – this was family land, and at a deeper level this was God’s land.

John Wesley commented on this story:

God had expressly, and for divers weighty reasons forbidden the alienation of lands from the tribes and families to which they were allotted.  (Don’t you love the way they spoke back in Wesley’s day?)  And although these might have been alienated 'till the jubilee, yet he durst not sell it to the king for that time; because he supposed, if once it came into the king's hand, neither he, nor his posterity, could ever recover it; and so he should both offend God, and wrong his posterity.
Wesley speaks of the Jubilee, in which every 50th year, debts were to be forgiven and land go back to the original owners.  This was one of the Levitical laws, but there is no evidence it was ever practiced.  This was not only land given Naboth by his ancestors; it was land that he was responsible for leaving to the next generation.  God forbid that he should so easily give it up, even to the king.  Naboth implicitly assumes that King Ahab would respect and honor the integrity of family lands.  Surely Ahab knew about the Levitical laws.  Surely he knew his Bible.  Surely the king cared about “Family Values.”

But Naboth was wrong.  Ahab couldn’t care less about the family lands of a two-bit peasant.  And he goes home like a whiny baby that didn’t get his way.  He went home resentful and sullen and lay down on his bed and wouldn’t eat.

Can you believe that?  Buck up, Ahab.  Be a man.  Act like a king.  But he goes on pouting that he can’t have Naboth’s vineyard.  His wife Jezebel notices, of course.  This was not typical behavior for Ahab.  But then again, maybe no one had ever said No to him.  Jezebel says, “There, there dear.  Leave it up to me.  You will get your garden.”

Jezebel seems to relish doing the dirty work.  Reading through these stories, you get the feeling that she really takes joy in having enemies and even slight irritants eliminated.  Here, she writes letters to the local elders and nobles and seals them with Ahab’s seal.  An assembly is held and Naboth is seated at the head table.  But at this very public occasion, following Jezebel’s instructions – and they knew well what would happen if they didn’t follow these instructions - two men falsely accuse Naboth of cursing God and the king.  And because of these trumped-up charges, he is stoned to death at the city gates.

Naboth is gone.  We don’t read about whether Naboth has a wife and children, but unless he has a male heir, the survivors would not have inheritance or property rights, and at this point who is going to mess with Ahab?  And so with Naboth gone, the king takes possession of Naboth’s vineyard.

But as you might expect, this is not the end of the story.  God speaks to Elijah, and Elijah goes and prophesies against Ahab.  Because of what Ahab has done, Elijah says, disaster will come to his house.

Given what has just happened to a guy who didn’t want to sell a vineyard to the king, Elijah’s message was certainly not easy to deliver.  But he had spoken God’s word against injustice, against such covetousness and scheming and murderous treachery, against such utter disregard for human life.

Where do we see ourselves in this story?  I think we have to see ourselves in Elijah’s role.  There are plenty of Ahabs out there.  There are plenty of examples of the rich abusing the poor, of the powerful abusing the weak.  Who will speak for the vulnerable, the marginalized, the oppressed?  Who will speak for those who cannot speak for themselves?  Who, if not us?  Who, if not God’s people?  Who, if not the church?

I mentioned AMOS a few minutes ago.  The way it works is that every couple of years, there are house meetings where as many people who are willing participate in small groups and talk about what is really important to them in the community, about where they and those they love are really hurting.  Out of these meetings, several issues are identified.  Those who are interested form teams to research these issues or problems, and this leads to conversations with decision-makers in the community and hopefully to positive change.

Whenever they ave house meetings, medical costs are one of the big community concerns.  As part of the research, it was pointed out that while insurance companies negotiate for reduced rates and fees from hospitals, those without insurance do not get these reduced rates.  So you go in for surgery, the bill is $56,000, but because of an agreement with your insurance company, the bill is reduced to $25,000.   It’s not chicken feed, but it’s a lot less than $56,000.  Of course, if you have insurance, you may not pay much attention to this.  But if you don’t have insurance, you have to pay the whole $56,000, and you definitely notice the difference.  In other words, those least able to pay have to pay a much larger bill for the exact same services.

This didn’t seem quite right, and AMOS had conversations with Mary Greeley leading to a change in the hospital’s policies for patients without insurance.  There is now a charity care policy that includes a sliding scale for those with low incomes, and those least able to pay are no longer charged the most.

Now, approaching the local hospital about its policies for uninsured patients is not exactly Elijah confronting Ahab, but this is the kind of prophetic work to which Christians are called.  It might happen in an organized, corporate way, through a group like AMOS or as our church responds to a need in our community.  Or it might happen more individually, as we each work for what is good and right and fair and just.  Jesus’ message was one of healing and wholeness and salvation, but it was also one of challenging the powers of the day on matters of justice and righteousness.

There will always be a need for people of faith who work for what is right.  There is always a need for people to stand with those who are oppressed.  There will always be a need for prophets to draw attention to wrongdoing.

Part of the reason Naboth refused to sell his land was that it was his children’s inheritance, and that is something that you do not sell.  We might ask, “What is it we have that we most want to pass on to our children?”

I receive daily email meditations from Tom Ehrich.  This past week, reflecting on words that Jesus spoke to his disciples in Luke chapter 10, he wrote this:

Jesus said true rejoicing comes from being in right relationship with God. Not perfection, not spiritual stardom, not publicly honored holiness. Rather…  receiving God's love and passing that love on to others.

Jesus spent his ministry on a small stage. So do we. That is where we make the world better. When we raise a child to know love, to honor duty and to care for others, we stand against the "power of the enemy."

When we give more than we take, when we find peace in simple things, when we remain faithful to our families and open to those not yet in our circles, we resist a darkness that extols consumption, warfare, self-serving and exclusion. 
What we pass on to those whom we love matters a great deal.  And that inheritance is something we do not sell.  Amen.