Saturday, December 5, 2020

“Do Not Be Afraid: Hold Hope” - November 29, 2020

Text: Luke 1:26-45


In this, the strangest year of most of our lives, we are entering into the season of Advent.  And like most everything else this year, Advent is going to be different this time around.  Christmas is going to be different.  But it seems to me that with many of the usual festivities and much of the typical hoopla set aside this year, we may have a chance to experience this season in a new and perhaps a deeper way.

Advent is a word that means coming.  This is a time of beginning.  Today is the beginning of a new liturgical year.  And you know, with all that has happened and all that is going on right now, this is really welcome.  We could use a new start, we could use a new beginning about right now.

The beginning that we read about in our scripture this morning comes about in a most unlikely way.  The angel Gabriel is sent to a town in Galilee, in northern Israel, far from the center of power in Jerusalem, to the town of Nazareth.  The angel appears to a young woman who had been promised in marriage to a man named Joseph but was not yet married.  The young woman’s name was Mary.  And the angel Gabriel has a message that is nearly beyond belief.  

We have heard Gabriel’s words before, heard them many times.  We usually hear them around this time of year.  But I want us to think especially about these words this morning, and specifically about three things that Gabriel says.

“The first is Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.”
Mary is called favored.  The Lord has regarded her.  What an amazing thing – to be thought of, to be regarded, to be viewed by God with favor.  The literal meaning is to be graced by God.  This is rendered in some translations as “Hail Mary, full of grace.”

Here is Mary, maybe 13 years old, promised by her family to marry the carpenter Joseph.  She really would have had no say in the matter.  She lives in an occupied nation, in an unimportant town.   Life is hard.  Roman oppression is a daily part of life.  

Of course Mary is startled.  Anybody would be.  But as much as being startled by the appearance of an angel, it is startling that the angel appears to her of all people.  And say that God has regarded her.  Favored her.  Graced her.

If the reading didn’t go any farther than that, we would have reason for hope.  Because here is the thing: God has not regarded her because she has a beautiful voice.  Not because she has been an exemplary student.  Not because she has done a great deal of important work.  Not because she has a sweet jump shot.  Not because she has been born to wealth or to a well-connected family.  God has regarded her, God has favored her, because that is what God does.  This isn’t about Mary as much as this is about God.

And God regards each one of us.  God favors and graces each one of us.  Our lives matter.  Our lives matter to God.  Not because we are brilliant or talented or skilled or beautiful or especially worthy or hardworking.  God regards us, God favors us, because of who God is.  This is what God does.

“Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you!” The scripture says that Mary was perplexed, which is no doubt an understatement.  We would all be scared to death, I think.  And what does the angel say?  “Do not be afraid.”

We have actually heard these words in scripture several times already this fall.  Abraham and Sarah followed God to a new land.  They face struggles and as they get beyond child-bearing age they have a hard time holding on to God’s promise that they will be parents of a great nation.  But God says to them, “Do not be afraid.  I will be your shield.  Look towards heaven and count the stars…So shall your descendants be.”

Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery and years later, they were reunited with him when they traveled to Egypt to buy food.  After their father Isaac died, they were afraid that Joseph would exact revenge, but speaking words that for them were words from God, he said, “Do not be afraid!  Even though you intended it for harm, God meant it for good.”

Then there was Elijah, speaking to the widow of Zarephath, who was ready to prepare bread with the last of her remaining flour and oil for a meager last meal for her and her son, and then get ready to die of starvation in a time of extreme famine.   Elijah spoke God’s word for her: “Do not be afraid.  The jar of flour will not fail, the jug of oil will not run empty until there is rain.  You will have food to eat and you and your son will live.”

Do not be afraid.  We hear these words time and again, and especially in the story of Jesus’ birth in Luke, which we will be looking at throughout these Sundays of Advent.  Earlier in the first chapter of Luke, an angel had appeared to the old priest Zechariah.  He was terrified, but what did the angel say to him?  “Do not be afraid.”  The angel Gabriel told him that the Lord had heard his prayers and that in her old age his wife Elizabeth would conceive and bear a child – who would be John the Baptist.

And now the angel Gabriel comes to Mary.  And what does he say?  Of course.  He speaks these same words: “Do not be afraid.”

Why is it that these words are repeated over and over in scripture?  And why do angels almost always say these words?

Well for one thing, the appearance of an angel is no doubt scary.  If an angel appears to you, your mind immediately races - what is happening?  You may be filled with dread and you certainly feel a healthy dose of fear.

But there is more to it.  God and God’s messengers again and again say, “Do not be afraid” because truth be told, there are a lot of things in our world that can inspire fear.  There are 101 reasons to feel anxiety and worry.  In the year of our Lord 2020, a message from God of “Do not be afraid” is needed more than ever.  

I think it is safe to say that there has been plenty to worry over this year.  Illness.  Loss – loss of income, loss of jobs, loss of so many things we may enjoy.  Loss of life.  Injustice.  Loneliness.  General turmoil in our culture.  We need an angel to come and tell us, “Do not be afraid.”

Last week, looking back on the year that isn’t even finished, Anne Lamott wrote, “This was the most astonishing, distressing, transforming, nerve-wracking, heartbreaking and generous year possible.”  That pretty well covers it.

Many of us did not get together with extended family for Thanksgiving.  Today we are meeting for the 38th Sunday in a row by Zoom.  These are not normal times.  And just as the angel Gabriel spoke to Mary, we hear God’s words to us: Do not be afraid.  Do not be afraid.  I am with you.

One more word from the angel Gabriel.  Mary, of course, had a hard time believing what she was hearing.  Her son will be called Son of the Most High?  He will reign over the house of Jacob forever?

What was being described wasn’t just wildly improbable; it was completely impossible.  On a simply logistical standpoint, Mary says, “I don’t even have a husband yet.” But the angel said: “Nothing is impossible for God.”

We have actually heard those words before too.  They appear one other place in scripture.  Again, back in Genesis with Abraham and Sarah, who kept hearing these promises but weren’t seeing the promise come to pass.  Until one day three visitors show up and tell Abram that when they stop by about this time next year, Sarai will have a son.  Sarai overhears and laughs out loud because by now the thought is preposterous.  And the visitors, angels, say “Why is she laughing?  Nothing is impossible for God.”  They named the child Isaac, which means Laughter.

Just as an angel had spoken these words to her ancestors about an unlikely birth, an angel comes to Mary and says, “Nothing is impossible for God.”  And in the midst of uncertainty, these are words to hold on to.  Words of hope.

Mary went to visit her older relative Elizabeth.  Only Elizabeth could understand the miracle of this child Mary was carrying.  Only Mary could understand the miracle of this child Elizabeth was carrying.  
 They share so much.  And there is so much they do not know.  They don’t know what to think of the angel who brought news of God’s favor.  They don’t know why they have been chosen.  They don’t know who their children will become, though they have some clues.  They don’t know how being mothers will change them.  They don’t know how their children will change the world, or how the world will change their children.  They don’t know how their hearts will soar, and ache, and break for the children they are carrying.  They don’t know how the community will react – whether they will be supported or run out of town as their surprising pregnancies became known.

But they know each other.  They are filled with joy for one another.  And they know that in the midst of so much unknown, there was an incredible and extraordinary gift from God.  There was overwhelming grace.

Nothing is impossible for God.  This is all about hope.

When we are filled with fear, nothing is impossible for God.

When we don’t know how we can make it through the pain we are facing, nothing is impossible for God.

When we don’t see a way forward, when we can’t imagine a solution, nothing is impossible for God.

Mary’s son changed the world.  He brought hope to the hopeless.  And for that he suffered and died.  But hope was not lost.  Because nothing is impossible for God.

Do not be afraid.  God looks upon you with favor.  Nothing is impossible for God.  So hold on to hope.  Amen.

“Raising Radishes, Raising Children” - November 15, 2020

Text: Psalm 78:1-7, Matthew 5:1-11


What a great day!  In a year filled with unique moments, we have shared in a baby dedication for Clara Ilene Grauman, who lives near Chicago.  How great is that?

We have dedicated Clara, but not only that, we have dedicated ourselves, to God.  We have prayed for God’s blessing on her life and we have promised as a community to care for her and help to support her parents and pray for her parents.  

Mutual support and encouragement and accountability is one of our reasons for our existence as a church.  And in those watershed moments, during those rites of passage, it is important to make the support and encouragement of the church tangible, as we have done this morning with the child dedication service.

While the arrival of a child is an occasion for great joy, for much excitement, while it comes with high hopes, it is also a bit daunting.  It can be daunting because raising a child is an awesome responsibility.  And it goes without saying that the times we live in do not make it any easier.

Caring for another life, nurturing a child through years of growth and change is no small thing.  It is a great joy and a great responsibility.  At times it will be a great heartache and at times it will be a great headache.  It’s a package deal.  I once heard Tony Campolo say that grandchildren are God’s reward for not killing your children.  Parenting is not an easy job, even in the best of times.

In the musical “The Fantasticks,” two exasperated fathers are talking about the difficulties of raising their children and they compare raising children to raising vegetables.  They note that when you plant a vegetable seed, you know what you are going to get, but it’s not that way with children.  The break into the song “Plant a Radish.”  

Plant a radish.
Get a radish.
Never any doubt.
That's why I love vegetables;
You know what you're about!

Plant a turnip.
Get a turnip.
Maybe you'll get two.
That's why I love vegetables;
You know that they'll come through!

They're dependable!
They're befriendable!
They're the best pal a parent's ever known!
While with children,
It's bewilderin'.
You don't know until the seed is nearly grown
Just what you've sown.

Every turnip green!
Every kidney bean!
Every plant grows according to the plot!

While with progeny,
It's hodge-podgenee.
For as soon as you think you know what kind you've got,
It's what they're not!
There is no more important task than parenting, but the thing is, we don’t have control over the final product.  We can teach our children and love them and guide them and point them the right way, but in the end it is out of our hands.  We all know that we can raise two different children in essentially the same way, and those two children will be very different from each other.  

At times the Biblical writers speak as though raising children is more like vegetable gardening.  Proverbs 22:6 says “Train children in the right way, and when they are old they will not stray.”  This sounds like a cut-and-dried, failproof formula, but we all know that it doesn’t always work that way.  It really isn’t like raising vegetables.  

Training children in the right way, bringing them up to love and follow Jesus, to love God and love their neighbor is the best way of helping children to become loving and caring, responsible, Christlike adults.  There is a lot of truth in that proverb, but it is just that: a proverb, not an immutable law.  It is wise advice, not a guarantee.

Because there are no guarantees, and because life is unpredictable, our need for God and our need for one another is even greater.  The way in which we as parents and the way in which we as a community teach our children and support and encourage one another is vitally important.

In our scripture from Psalm 78, we read:
God commanded our ancestors
   to teach [God’s laws] to their children;
that the next generation might know them,
   the children yet unborn,
and rise up and tell them to their children,
   so that they should set their hope in God.
God’s laws and promises have to be repeated again and again.  The stories of the Bible have to be retold for each new generation.  The teachings of Jesus are not caught by osmosis – we have to teach them to our children and our children’s children.  We have come to faith only because of generation after generation who passed on the faith, who told the stories, who taught their children.  It is so good to have Clara’s grandparents and great-grandparents here with us because they have very much had a part in this.  

And the fact is, we are all children.  No matter our age, we are all God’s children, and we have to remind each other again and again about the ways of Jesus.

In the Psalm, did you catch the reason for all of the teaching?  It is “so that they should set their hope in God.”  The goal is that our children and our children’s children – succeeding generations – might set their hope in God.

To paraphrase a well-known expression, “it takes a church to raise a child.”  One of the reasons it is so tough, one of the reasons it takes all of us, is precisely because of the content, because of the values that we seek to instill in young people – and hopefully older folks as well.  It is not easy stuff.

Our New Testament reading comes from the heart of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, known as the Beatitudes.  We have heard this so often that we kind of lose sight of the radical nature of what Jesus is saying.  Look at who he says are blessed: the poor in spirit.  Those who mourn.  The meek.  Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  The merciful.  The pure in heart.  The peacemakers.  Those who are persecuted for doing the right thing.

It is difficult to teach things like this.  These are the sort of things we teach through our actions much more than our words.  And these are not the kinds of things children are going to pick up in the street.  They are not likely to learn it from TV and certainly not from social media.  The values that we are trying to instill are countercultural.  

Think about Jesus’ teachings: Love your enemies.  It is better to give than receive.  The first shall be last and the last shall be first.  Do not worry about tomorrow.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  

And then look at what Jesus does.  He associates with sinners and tax collectors – with those who are outcasts of society, those who are looked down upon, those who have a bad name.  He gets in trouble because he isn’t so concerned with outward shows of piety, but says it’s what is on the inside that really matters.  

He values women and carries on public conversation with women and has public friendships with women in a time when that was a cultural taboo.  Likewise he speaks with Samaritans – despised half-breed heretics in the eyes of most folks - and uses them as the good guy in stories he tells.  He has time for children when most people thought that children should be neither seen nor heard.

Together, we are trying to follow the ways of One who challenged the norms of his culture – and ours.  While people for the most part like Jesus, most do not take seriously many of his teachings.  We are trying to instill values that are not widely held.  Raising a child is hard enough.  Raising a child in the way of Christ is even more difficult.  It takes a church.

Raising radishes or turnips or carrots is certainly easier than raising children.  It is a lot cheaper and much less time-consuming, and as the song tells us, you have a lot better idea of what you are going to get.  Radishes cause a lot less frustration and they generally don’t cause much heartache.  And you don’t have to teach vegetables in the way they should go.  

With children, there is not only a curriculum, it is a tough curriculum.  Because we are trying to teach a way of being and living that we find pretty tough ourselves.

Today is our stewardship commitment Sunday.  You might be asking, why aren’t we talking about money?  Well, for one thing, we have already had some conversation about money, and Phyllis did a really fabulous job of speaking to us about giving and tithing last Sunday.  But beyond that, while stewardship is certainly about money, it is about a lot more than that.  It about our lives.  We have a responsibility for all that God entrusts to us, including our children, including one another.  When we live out of gratitude for God’s amazing gifts, and when we take those gifts – all of those gifts - seriously, the money is going to take care of itself.

For all of the difficulty, the joy that children bring, the potential and promise they have, the love that we give and the love that we receive from our children, make it all worth it.  We have a wonderful and awesome responsibility.  We give thanks to God for Clara and her big sister Fern and for all of our children.  And we know that they are not simply our children, they are God’s children.  We are all God’s children.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

“YOUNEVERKNOW” - November 8, 2020

 Text:Jonah 3, 4


We are living in a time of uncertainty, and it reminds me, believe it or not, of a baseball story.  I’m a Cardinal fan, and it’s been a long time but I may have shared the story of Cardinal pitcher Jouquin Andujar.  Jouquin was a colorful character.  When he took his practice pitches before each inning, the last pitch he would throw wildly and like a bullet, about 20 feet up on the screen.  Besides just plain orneriness, he did this to send a message to the opposing players that his fastball just might get away from him.  He didn’t want them getting too comfortable at the plate.

A reporter once asked Jouquin to describe the game of baseball in one word.  He was from the Dominican Republic, liked to be known as One Bad Dominican, and his English wasn’t perfect, but he had a wonderful response.  The one word to describe baseball, he said, was “YOUNEVERKNOW.“  It was an inspired answer.  And it’s true.  You head to the ballpark and it could be a no-hitter or an 18-17 game.  Youneverknow.

YOUNEVERKNOW actually applies to a lot of things.  If you were asked to describe the story of Jonah in one word, a good answer would be: YOUNEVERKNOW.

God asks the prophet Jonah to go and preach to Nineveh.  Nineveh was a foreign city, denounced for its violence and evil by the prophets Zephaniah and Nahum.  Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, an enemy of Israel.  God asks Jonah to go to Nineveh, and not surprisingly, Jonah did not want to go.  

Jonah didn’t like these people, didn’t like the idea of God caring about these people, and personally, it would be fine with him if they all rotted in hell.  And besides, Jonah knew it would be an exercise in futility.  There was no way the Ninevites would listen to him.  Nineveh was to the east, so Jonah did what any self-respecting prophet would do: he got on a fast boat headed west.

That probably makes Jonah a lot like us.  If we were asked to do something that seemed just too difficult or too distasteful, or we were asked to minister to people we absolutely did not like, our first reaction might be to run.
Jonah skips town and fast, but the ship comes upon a terrible storm and it looks like everyone will die at sea.  The crew figures out that they are in this predicament because Jonah had disobeyed his God.  The crew members come across as decent and sincere people – they are not worshipers of the God of Israel, but they are much more appealing characters than Jonah, the prophet of God.  They really don’t want to do it, but as the storm intensifies they do what they have to do.  Jonah is thrown overboard and the storm immediately calms.  Jonah ends up being swallowed by a big fish and after three days to think about what has transpired, he is vomited up on the shore.

And so the Lord asks Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh.  It’s an offer Jonah really can’t refuse – I mean, he’s already done hard time in a fish’s belly.  So he goes to Nineveh.  He didn’t have to like it, but he went.

Nineveh was a very large city.  The passage says it took three days to walk across the city.  Maybe that is a case of describing Nineveh in legendary terms, but at one time Nineveh was actually the largest city in the world, the greatest urban center on earth.  Jonah travels one day into the city – he doesn’t even reach the heart of town.  And here is his entire text: “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.”  That’s it.  In Hebrew, it’s just five words.  A five-word sermon that does not mention God, does not say why the city will be overthrown, and holds out no hope of escaping this sentence.  To be honest, it was a pitiful performance, a half-hearted effort.

But amazingly, the people of Nineveh responded.  Jonah doesn’t even mention God, but the people nevertheless believe in God.  They fasted, put on sackcloth, and repented of their sins.  The news reached the king, who followed the lead of the people.  He took off his crown and his robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes.  He proclaimed that every living thing, human and animal, will put on sackcloth and ashes and fast and repent of their evil ways and the violence in their hearts and perhaps God will spare them.

And it works.  Because of their repentance, God decided to spare the city.  

This made Jonah very upset.  He was disillusioned and depressed by the success of his mission in Nineveh.  He was at the same time the worst and the most successful prophet ever.

The lessons of this story might be summarized in that one word: YOUNEVERKNOW.

1.  YOUNEVERKNOW what God may call you to do.  It was inconceivable to Jonah that God would want him to go to Nineveh.  He thought he knew better than God.

Contrast Jonah with Jesus’ disciples.  Jesus says, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.”  And Andrew and Simon and James and John follow.  Just like that.  No questioning, no delay.  There was no doubt some uncertainty, some sense of “what are we getting ourselves into?”  But nevertheless, they followed, because they knew that God had called them.  

There are those times when we find ourselves in places and situations we never would have expected.  Maybe we find ourselves living in Iowa.  Maybe we find ourselves in a Baptist church.  Maybe we find ourselves involved in an organization or cause or role we really hadn’t planned on.  We never planned to coach kids.  We never planned to lead Sunday School.  We had no ambition to become a deacon.  But here we are.  Circumstances, or maybe God, led us to this place and we said yes.  Youneverknow.

2.  And then, YOUNEVERKNOW how others may respond.  
Jonah had the Ninevites all figured out.  They were heathen beyond hope.  And yet, every person in the city repented.  Men, women, rich, poor, boys, girls, royalty.  They all repented of their sin.  Even the animals put on sackcloth and ashes and repented.  (Which gives us hope, because I know there are some cats out there that definitely need to repent.)

Today, there are people that society has by and large written off as worthless.  As beyond hope.  The church can sometimes write those people off too.  What would happen if we took seriously the fact that no one is beyond hope, no person is beyond reaching, no one is beyond being transformed by the love of God?

The great German pastor Helmut Thielicke had an old photograph on his desk. It was a snapshot of a Christmas pageant.  A group of grizzled looking men are wearing white robes and holding candles in their rough hands.  Another group of men is kneeling before them, feigning terror.  It is clear that they are supposed to be the angels, speaking to the fearful shepherds.

Why was this photograph the only one on the pastor's desk? Thielicke explained that it was taken in prison, while he was a prison chaplain.  The men in the scene were hardened criminals whose lives had been transformed by Christ.  Murderers and rogues were dressed like angels.  For Thielicke, it was a parable, not unlike the story of Jonah, a visible reminder of the awesome power of God to change us. The message of Jonah is that change is possible even in the most unlikely places and unlikely people.  YOUNEVERKNOW.

3.  The story of Jonah also tells us that we never know what the future will bring.  Jonah would not have imagined that God would ask him to go to Nineveh.  When he went the other way and found himself thrown overboard in a storm, he was not expecting to be swallowed and then barfed up on the shore by a big fish.  When he finally did go to Nineveh, he was pretty sure of how things would turn out and basically sabotaged his own message, trying to fail, but the people repented anyway.

Jonah’s experience sounds a lot like 2020.  We haven’t been swallowed by a big fish and vomited up on the shore and then sent to the last place on earth we would want to go; it just feels like it.  We never would have imagined what would happen over these past months.  

But here is the Good News: the story of Jonah tells us that YOUNEVERKNOW about God.  Jonah assumed that God was just like him, assumed that God didn’t care about those no-good Ninevites, assumed that God operated in predictable ways.  

Contrast Jonah with the king.  I love the king in this story.  The king has better insight into God than God’s own prophet.  The king says to the people, “Who knows?  Maybe God will relent.”  He doesn’t claim to understand how God operates.  He knew that we don’t control what God will do.  But he also understood that what we do does matter.  And because of the people’s repentance, God spared the city.

What this tells us is that the future is wide open.  The future is filled with possibility.  We are not just actors playing roles that are designated for us, but we have a part in shaping the future.  What we do matters.  

Jonah thought he had things all figured out, but he was wrong.  Like Jonah, we get into trouble when we think we know it all.  But the fact is, there is a great deal we do not know.

To say YOUNEVERKNOW does not mean that we don’t know anything.  It is a word that speaks of mystery and possibility and wonder and faith.  We don’t know, we won’t know until we try - we won’t know until we check things out.

YOUNEVERKNOW what God may call you to do until you
really listen.

YOUNEVERKNOW how others will respond until they have the opportunity.

YOUNEVERKNOW what the future will bring until you
have lived it.

YOUNEVERKNOW about God until you commit yourself to following in God’s ways.

YOUNEVERKNOW is really an invitation to give things a try – to give God a try.

The invitation for us is that in the midst of these uncertain times, we might commit our lives to following where Jesus leads us.  That might mean going to some unexpected places.

That can mean living without knowing all the answers.

That means the future is wide open.  It is filled with possibility.  And until we really seek to follow Jesus, well, YOUNEVERKNOW.  Amen.  

“Living in God’s Abundance” - November 1, 2020

Text: 1 Kings 17:8-16


Mindy and Emma chose the song they just sang, based on the Beatitudes.  It’s a beautiful song.  The Beatitudes tell us that God wants to bless the poor, the humble, those filled with sadness.  God wants us to be merciful and to be peacemakers.

The same day that Mindy told me this is what they would be singing, I read a piece by Diana Butler Bass who said that she thinks of the Beatitudes as Jesus’ Voter Guide.  They are in a sense Jesus’ platform for the Kingdom of God – the way God wants us to live and the values that God wants us to pursue.

Of course, no candidate and no party is going to bring forth the kingdom of God.  And none of us fully live up to Jesus’ vision.  But we are called to work toward a Beloved Community.  I know that many of you, maybe most of you have voted already, and if you haven’t I encourage you to vote as an act of Christian discipleship and responsible citizenship.

Of course, we are down to the final days of a grueling, rancorous, seemingly endless presidential campaign, and we may all feel some anxiety about it.  So, for these moments, I would ask us to set all of that aside, and look instead to the loftier words of scripture.  We turn our attention to our text for today and - well, I hate to say this, but the context is all about - politics.  

Last Sunday we looked at King David.  David was succeeded by his son Solomon, who built the temple, but after Solomon’s death, the kingdom was divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah.  Ahab was king of Israel.  He came to the throne about 130 years after David’s reign.  

Ahab arrived on the scene at a critical time for Israel.  As a nation, Israel needed reliable allies both for national security – it was a dangerous world – and to have good, stable trading partners.  And then, people were worried about the economy.  Folks were having trouble making ends meet.  It actually sounds vaguely familiar.

Ahab set out on a building program and rebuilt the city of Jericho.  You may remember that when the Israelites captured Jericho, they marched around the walls seven times and the walls came tumblin’ down.  Later Joshua said, “Cursed be anyone who endeavors to rebuild the city.”  The walls were to remain in ruins as a testament to what God had done.  But Ahab disregarded this warning.  Jericho was rebuilt, but the chief builder’s oldest and youngest sons died in the process, just as Joshua had said would happen.

But as much as urban centers and building programs, Ahab was concerned about agriculture.  A good crop could make all the difference.  It would lead to a happier population, and a happy population made for a more secure king.  Which, if you are a king, is the bottom line.

Israel had long worshiped its own God, Yahweh, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God who had led the nation from captivity in Egypt.   Now to Ahab’s way of thinking, Yahweh was still their god, but in the modern world, you had to adapt to new realities.  An agricultural god like Baal couldn’t hurt.  If having one god on your side was good, then two or three would be even better.

For several generations now, the rulers of Israel had mixed the worship of Yahweh with worship of other gods.  Judah, the southern kingdom, had a slightly better track record on this, but that wasn’t saying much.  Ahab’s father was King Omri, who followed this path.  1 Kings chapter 16 says that Omri did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, more so than all the kings who went before him.  But then came Omri’s son Ahab, and the scripture says that Ahab was even worse than Omri – he took the prize as the worst ever when it came to doing evil in God’s sight.  

Now, Ahab had political skill.  He married Jezebel, a Princess of Sidon.  Sidon was a Phoenician city, just north of Israel in what is now Lebanon.  Politically, this was a shrewd move, cementing ties between the two countries.  The Phoenicians were merchants and ship builders and this brought access to raw materials like Cedars of Lebanon.  Jezebel was a dedicated worshiper of Baal, the god of rain and agriculture and fertility, and like I mentioned, Ahab was glad to get all the help he could get agriculturally.  

So Ahab’s marriage to Jezebel brought closer ties to a neighboring state, increasing both trade and security.  Beyond that, Jezebel brought with her a dedication for the worship of the Phoenician gods Baal and Asherah.  And the text says that Ahab himself served and worshiped Baal and built altars to Baal and sacred monuments to Asherah.  

In response to this, the prophet Elijah tells King Ahab that “As sure as the God of Israel lives, there will be a severe drought, with neither rain nor dew.”  God was not just randomly sending a drought to punish Ahab.  What is going on here is that Baal is the God of rain.  For turning from the God of Israel to Baal, God is saying, “If that’s what you want, you can depend on Baal for your rain.  Count me out.”  
Of course, Elijah’s pronouncement does not make Ahab happy.  Ahab has killed for a lot less than this and as it turns out, Jezebel is maybe more formidable than Ahab.  So God tells Elijah to flee, to go live by a ravine east of the Jordan River.  There he is miraculously fed by ravens, who bring him meat and bread twice a day.  He has water to drink from the stream until it dries up because of the drought.  God is miraculously supplying Elijah with food, but Baal, who is supposed to be responsible for rain, is totally dropping the ball.  So God tells Elijah to go to Zarephath, in Sidon, where a widow will take him in and feed him.  He goes there and at the city gate meets a poor widow who is gathering sticks.

Elijah asks the woman for bread, but she says that she is gathering sticks to make a fire so she can prepare the last meal for her and her son.  There is just a tiny bit of meal and oil, and after they eat this there will be nothing to do but die.  The drought is not confined to Israel.

This is a traumatized woman.  She has lost her husband, she is fighting poverty and losing, there is no food, she is nearly despondent, heading home to face death with her son.  And then Elijah, this prophet who I have to say is totally lacking in social skills shows up.

But Elijah is also facing trauma.  He is also trying to survive, running for his life, in a battle with an evil king and queen.  He comes across as blunt and demanding, and we would prefer a little kindness and understanding from Elijah, maybe a little pastoral care.  But Elijah, like this widow has had a bad day.  It’s been a long streak of bad days for both of them.

It actually seems ridiculous for Elijah to ask this woman to provide for him.  But he does.  She is getting ready to cook one last meal, which will only temporarily stave off death for her and her son.  Elijah says, OK, but first, give me some water and make me a little bread, and then make some for you and your son.  God promises that the jar of meal and jug of oil will not fail until God sends rain.  

What do you do, if you are this woman?  Maybe you think, “We’re going to die anyway,” so you make the cake for Elijah.  But I think it’s more than that.  Somewhere inside this woman there is courage.  There is hope.  And there is generosity that is hard to fathom.  Every day, she gives away all she has.  Every day, she empties the jar of meal and the jug of oil.  And every day, God provides more.  

Jeff Manion offers this insight:

The chief inhibitor to generosity isn’t greed; it’s fear.  Fear of not having enough.  And the only remedy for fear is trust.  Trust and generosity walk hand in hand, and it is really difficult to pursue the generous life while scared.  God delivers us from fear as we trust God to unleash generosity.  When a person begins to tap into generosity, they’re dialing into a core of God’s character.
Because God is generous toward us, we are able to be generous toward others.  Trusting in the goodness and care and grace of God, we become more and more generous.  

In so many instances, it is easy for us to hold back because of fear that we don’t have enough.  Fear that we’re not good enough.  Fear that there is only so much love and kindness and compassion to go around, and we need to hang on to it.  Fear that we better hold on to whatever resources we have because it’s all we’ve got and things might get really rough somewhere in the future.  Fear that we might fail, so why trying something new?

The fact is, we have so much more than we realize.  Maybe we have only been counting our own resources, what you can read in a bank statement or put in a spreadsheet, and forgetting about God’s love and care and provision, which like that jar of meal and jug of oil never run out.  

Have you ever felt like you were just at the end of your rope, that you couldn’t manage one more day?  But somehow, somewhere, you find the strength to go on and you make it through.  It’s that jug of oil again.  Or have you ever felt really alone, and just when you need it most someone shows up to lift your spirits and help you along?  It’s that jar of meal.

These have been desperate times for a lot of people.  Sometimes it seems like all we can do to make it to the next day.  But again and again, God gives us what we need to see us through another day.

This widow, amazingly, gives away all she has, again and again - and again and again, God provides.  Now, here is the irony of it all: this woman lives in Phoenicia.  She lives in a suburb of Sidon – Jezebel’s home town.  Elijah is sent presumably to a Baal worshiper, whose generosity keeps him alive.  God is a God of life.  God uses ravens – unclean animals – to provide for Elijah, and then God uses a poor, marginalized woman from Jezebel’s own hometown to provide for him.  God provides, sometimes in strange and mysterious ways.

This is the first in a number of dramatic stories involving the prophet Elijah.  Some leave you laughing, some make you cringe, some make you scratch your head, some are pretty entertaining.  And though these events took place nearly 3000 years ago, it is amazing how relevant they can be.

We can easily fall into living out of a mindset of scarcity.  There is not enough, and we need to hold on to whatever we have tightly.  God shows us another way.  When we live out of abundance, sharing freely, God’s blessings keep coming.
God is a God of life.  God is still in the business of providing for us.  And we are called to respond to God’s abundance with kindness and compassion and generosity.  May it be so.  Amen.

“A Home for God” - October 25, 2020

Text: 2 Samuel 7:1-17

Last Sunday our scripture included the birth of Hannah’s son Samuel.  Samuel became one of the judges of Israel and a great prophet.  And in time, Samuel anointed Saul as the first king of Israel.  Saul was tall and handsome and certainly looked the part, but in time was found to be lacking as a ruler and leader.   

God had warned that this king experiment might not go well.  And in time God had Samuel anoint a new king.  Samuel went to an unlikely family in an unlikely tribe and told Jesse to bring his sons before him.  God chose the youngest, the shepherd boy David, to be king.

Of course, this anointing was very hush-hush, and it would be years before David actually took the throne.  In the intervening years, David became a musician in King Saul’s court.  He defeated the Philistine giant Goliath with his slingshot.  He was a faithful servant of the king and then a decorated soldier.  In time, Saul became consumed with jealousy over David’s popularity.  

So Saul’s soldiers chased down David and there was a bloody civil war.  Eventually David became king of the united monarchy.  He expanded the borders of the nation, he consolidated royal power, and he took Jerusalem from the Jebusites and made it the capital city.  

Not only was the nation becoming more powerful, David was becoming more powerful.  He has more wives, he has more children, and he has a beautiful palace, built of cedars of Lebanon.  Finally, he has the Ark of the Covenant brought to Jerusalem.  The Ark contained the two tablets of the law.  It represented the presence of God and it was the most treasured religious symbol of Israel.  

At this point, David is doing exceedingly well.  He has become king; he has established a new capital city and defeated military enemies.  He has power and fame and is loved by the people.  But when David reflects on all of this, something is not quite right.  He is living in a brand new, beautiful palace, but what about God?  Where is God living?

To us this sounds like a weird question.  What do you mean, where does God live?  In the ancient world, this was not a weird question at all.  God was very much attached to place.

God’s home during the years in the wilderness, after the flight from Egypt, had been in the Tent of Meeting.  The Ark of the Covenant was housed in the Tent of Meeting, or Tabernacle, a kind of portable sanctuary that was the center of worship for Israel.  For David, what it all came down to is that while he lived in a palace built of the finest materials, God had a tent.

So David made plans to build a proper home for God.  It was only right.  It was only fitting.  And if in the process, this increased national pride and unity and made David even more popular and even more powerful, well, that was a price David was willing to pay.

David shared his plans with the prophet Nathan.  He says, “I’m living in a house of cedar, but the Ark of God stays in a tent.”  He doesn’t get any farther than that; Nathan the prophet simply says, “Go ahead and do what you have in mind.”  But after initially giving his thumbs-up to the project, Nathan went home and slept on it.  God spoke to Nathan, and Nathan passed the word of God on to David.

And essentially, here is what God says: “I’ve never had a house before, and I don’t need one now.  A tent has always been good enough.  Through generations of the Hebrew people, I have never, not even once, said to the leaders of Israel, “Build me a house of cedar.”  

Have you ever been given a gift that you really didn’t want?  That you would never ask for?  Sometimes we may give someone a gift that is really what we want more than it is what they want.

God never asked for a house in which to live.  Now, God did ask for a number of things.  God had asked for justice for the poor, for debts to be forgiven, for faithfulness.  God had asked for devotion.  There were the Ten Commandments – God had said, “Honor Me, honor your parents, keep the Sabbath, don’t murder or lie or steal or covet or commit adultery.”  But there was never one word from God about, “Build me a house.”

God says, “Don’t build me a house.  Instead, I will make you into a house.”  But God was not talking about a place to live.  God was talking about building David’s descendants into a great people.  

King David inspired Israel to let go of tribalism and become a unified nation.  He was a wise and charismatic leader.  He saw that to truly be a national capital and to truly unite the people, Jerusalem also needed to be a center of faith.  David saw that Jerusalem should be a beacon to the nations.  But he failed to understand that this would happen not through building an impressive temple, but by being a holy people.

But you know what?  Building an impressive temple is a heck of a lot easier than becoming a holy people.  Building structures is the easy part.  Building a community, a living, breathing community of grace and compassion and welcome and integrity and openness and faithfulness - that is much taller order.  

The ironic thing is that the building God had in mind would bring greater glory to David than any buildings made of the finest cedars of Lebanon.  Years later, the temple ultimately built in Jerusalem by David’s son Solomon lie in ruins along with the second temple that was built a few hundred years later, but the House of David continues to this day.  One of David’s descendants, Jesus of Nazareth, continued the house of David, and all of us here this morning are spiritual descendants of that house.

The strongest structures are not necessarily those made of wood or stone or bricks and mortar.  Yet so often, our answer to God’s call over the centuries has been to build something.  To launch institutions, to build temples, to establish hierarchies.  

When we do this, we can spend our time and energy serving the institution, and God can kind of get lost in the process.  It can become all about the institution.

Now ironically enough, today we will have our budget forum – we will be thinking very much about the institution, about the building, about structures.  And these are important.  Our church buildings and mission agencies and denominational ties and our history and heritage do matter.  But these are not an end in themselves.  And they certainly do not contain God.

God is always on the move, always active, always at work.  God cannot be contained in a building or in any other box we might want to put God in.    

I don’t know if you are counting, but today marks 32 Sundays in which we have been unable to meet together in our sanctuary.  It is not just us.  It is churches everywhere, all around the world.  If we had not already learned it, it should be obvious by now that the church is not the building.  The church is the people.  

As Paul puts it, “The God who made the world and everything in it does not live in shrines made by human hands.”  In Ephesians 2, we read,

You are … members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.  In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.   (Ephesians 2:19-22)

Did you catch that?  WE are built into a dwelling place for God.  God does not live in buildings, but in US.  We should look for God not in structures or institutions, but in God’s people.  

Today is Reformation Sunday.  On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church, an action that signified the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  Luther was essentially arguing against the abuses and the kind of fossilization that can come about when we think of faith primarily as an institution.

Baptists are a part of what was known as the Radical Reformation.  You might not think of us as a bunch of radicals, but for a long time, that is exactly what people thought of Baptists.  And at our best, maybe that is who we are.  The Baptists went further than Luther and many of the Reformers in holding to believer’s baptism, a very non-hierarchical church structure, and the idea of soul freedom – that each person is absolutely free to worship – or not worship God - according to one’s conscience - which leads to an emphasis on the complete separation of church and state.  

Problems can come about when we focus too much on institutions and structures.  There is an anthem our choir sings, written by Baptist Ken Medema.  I love the words:

Come build a church with soul and spirit,
come build a church of flesh and bone.
We need no tower rising skyward;
no house of wood or glass or stone.

Come build a church with human frailty,
come build a church of flesh and blood.
Jesus shall be its sure foundation.
It shall be built by the hand of God.
As we go to class and go to work and raise children and teach and build and volunteer and share and cook and give and encourage and support and pray and help and cry and laugh and sing, we are the church.  And God is there, right there with us.  God is building us into a family of faith.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.