Wednesday, August 7, 2019

2 Kings 2:1-15 "A Double Dose"

         Elijah, the greatest prophet Israel had ever known, was preparing to move on.  He knew instinctively that his days on this earth were numbered, and besides, the times, they were a changin’.
Here in the 9thcentury BCE, the Jewish realm that King David had united had broken up into northern and southern entities, the separate nations of Judah and Israel.  Prophets were no longer called to fulfill their prophetic responsibilities in the old way, directly serving this, that, or the other king. 
Now they operated outside of any official political or religious system.  They were free agents, answerable only to themselves and God/Yahweh.  Consequently, not only miracles and healings marked their careers.  They also unabashedly called out God’s chosen people and their leaders for misbehavior and ignorance about their unique relationship with the Holy One.  
When we meet Elijah this morning, he and his sidekick and pupil, Elisha, were traveling together to Gilgal.  God had put the finger on Elisha some years earlier to be Elijah’s successor.  Elijah had looked far and wide for him and somewhere between Sinai and Damascus had discovered Elisha ploughing a field with twelve yoke of oxen, quite an accomplishment in and of itself.  
At that time, Elijah threw his mantle (or cloak) over Elisha’s shoulders.  Having been given the age-old symbol of leadership, Elisha set aside a life of farming, accepted this unexpected call to the prophetic office, and set out with the great and glorious aging prophet.  That is all we hear about Elisha in the Bible until today.  However, we can presume that for the seven or eight years after he dropped his plough to follow Elijah, he was a star pupil, eager mentee, solicitous attendant, and devoted friend.
Today we learn something more about Elisha.  He was darn stubborn, a characteristic illustrated by his determined unwillingness to let go of his teacher.  Imagine this scene:  The two of them are at a crossroads, and Elijah announces that here they will part ways.  “Elisha, you stay. God has sent me on an errand to Bethel.”
Maybe Elijah wanted some time alone before he left this earth.  We do not know, but Elisha would have none of it.   
 “Not on your life! I am not letting you out of my sight!” I picture Elijah rolling his eyes and shaking his tired head before he acquiesced. 
Anyway, they both went to Bethel where a bunch of minor prophets started heckling Elisha, “Did you know that God is going to take your master away from you today?”
“Yes,” the young man replied, “I know it. But keep quiet, and for heaven’s sake, do not remind me.  It is bad enough knowing without you telling me too.”
This same scenario and repartee played out two more times. Elijah the mentor cannot shake Elisha, his longtime mentee. Elijah says he needs to go to Jericho, and Elisha says he will not leave him, not on his life.  It is like the song: “I can’t live if livin’ is without you”.  And the chorus of prophets in Jericho chime in again with their same observation to which Elisha replies, “Shut up!  Do not keep calling it to my attention.”
Finally, a third time, Elijah announces that God has ordered him to the Jordan River.  Elisha swears again that they will always stick together, like peanut butter and jelly, like salt and pepper, like father and son. He categorically refuses to give Elijah the space he seeks and, like a puppy, follows him to the Jordan River.  This time, however, fifty minor local prophets, curious and prone to gossip and most certainly busy bodies follow along to see what will happen next.  
They watched as Elijah took off his mantle, rolled it up, and swatted the muddy water.  As with Moses before him, the waters parted and, without missing a beat, Elijah walked across, not getting so much as a toe wet, and Elisha followed, puppy dog fashion.
It was then that Elijah turned to his successor and asked him, “OK, you have come this far.  What can I do for you before I am taken from you, before I head off to heaven?”  Old Elijah signed audibly and continued, “Ask anything.”
And Elisha screwed up all his hutzpah and requested that which had been on his mind for a long time.  “Give me your spirit.  Give me your passion and your zeal.  In fact, make it a double.  I will need all the help I can get.  Give me your life repeated in my life. Give me a double portion of whatever you had going for you.”  
Elisha pointed to the fifty prophets looking on curiously.  “I do not want to be like them. I want to be like you.”
 “That is a hard one!” said Elijah. “Spirit is only for God to give, not me.  However, if you are watching when I am taken from you, I imagine you will get what you have asked for. But only if you are watching.”
And then it happened – another pyrotechnic display of divine extravagance – the flaming chariot, the horses of fire, the whirlwind - and Elisha’s desperate voice overshadowing the whole event.  “My father, my father!  Mighty defender of Israel!  You are gone!”  
And he was too.  Elisha kept staring into the fire and the sun until the chariot that was between him and Elijah was only a flash of light and a speck in the blue cloudless sky.  Tears streamed from the young man’s face as he ripped his clothing in two – quite a display of abject grief especially if that is about the only clothing you own. 
All that was left of his teacher and friend was the mantle (the cloak) that had dropped from the chariot as it rose into the sky.  Elisha picked it up and buried his face in it, soaking up the faint odor of Elijah in a vain attempt to hold on to him a little bit longer.  
Then he looked at the mantle, fingered the roughness of its fabric, took a deep breath, and rolled it up exactly as he had seen his mentor do.  Putting both Elijah and God to the test, he walked to the edge of the river, just where the water meets the land.  He looked up once more to where Elijah had disappeared and cried out, “My God, my God, where are you?” And with the rolled up mantle, he hit the water and watched it splash upward, the droplets catching the sunlight like a prism.
 I like to imagine at first that nothing happened, and there was only silence. God apparently was not going to show up.  Or, at least, that is what a lot of people would have thought if they had been in Elisha’s sandals.   However, Elisha, for his part, was undeterred and would not accept failure.  
With unflagging faith in Elijah and God/Yahweh, and in great high hope, he took a deep breath – and continued to wait.  In time, the waters parted, and – like Moses and Elijah before him - he walked on dry land to the opposite shore, confident now in the double dose of what?  Power – maybe.  Faith - certainly.  Spirit, passion, and zeal – undoubtedly.
The fifty prophets who had been standing by all this time applauded heartily:  Bravo! Bravo!  And they called out to anyone who happened to be listening, “The spirit of Elijah lives in Elisha!” And they gathered around the young prophet, slapping him on the back, toasting and hugging him, welcoming and honoring him as one of their own – but recognizing that he was so much more.
Elisha went on to be Israel’s #1 prophet, offering advice and calling out kings.  He created his own legacy of miracles – from healing Naaman, the Syrian military commander, of leprosy to resurrecting a dead child to feeding a hundred men with twenty loaves of barley bread.  Who would have thought those future events possible when today we find Elisha staring hopelessly into the sky, so sure he was not fully prepared to take up Elijah’s mantle and be the leader he would eventually become?
Somewhere along the way, Elisha learned something very important. It is like the story ofa famous preacher who was a bit of a fraud.  You see, his sermons were great but no one ever realized that in fact they had all been written by his 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, which is…” only to turn to page three and see nothing but the dreaded words, “You’re on your own now.”
And so it was with Elisha.  He was on his own. He could no longer depend on Elijah to put the finishing touches on a miracle.  He could no longer pretend to lead but really be protected by Elijah’s shadow.  He was on his own.  Who he was, what he would become, and the kind of leader he would be depended on who he now chose to be – on that and on his faith in the Spirit that he believed resided - two fold - within him now.  
Elisha did not have all the answers.  The path was not clearly cut and easy to follow.  In a sense, he set out on a wing and a prayer. One blogger I read this week wrote, “What if Elisha would have said, ‘before I try and be like Elijah, maybe I better join a 4 week study group on how to part the Jordan River with God’s power?’ But he had seen enough. He had learned enough. It was time now to transform that knowledge” into action, into ministry.
As Lutheran pastor Michael Coffey notes, “You can’t keep staring up waiting for the one who taught you and loved you and encouraged you to come back and make it all better.  It’s like Elijah is somewhere beyond the sun, but if Elisha keeps staring at the sun, the fiery chariot in the sky, to see or wait for what’s beyond, he’ll just go blind. He has to start living and trusting in the spirit in himself.”
And so it is with us Christians in our post-modern world.  The time is past to keep staring back at what was – full pews, Sunday best, burgeoning Sunday Schools populated by well-behaved children, youth groups whose teens were never exposed to marijuana, gender identity, or confusing sexual mores.  The church, it is a changing’.  
Like Elisha, we donot have all the answers. That is for sure. The path is not clearly cut and easy to follow either.  Yet, in the midst of all this uncertainty, like Elisha, none of us can continue to be complacent.  We cannot figure that someone else will pick up the mantle and lead us out of this quagmire of declining church participation and growing secularism in which we find ourselves.  It is not only the pastor’s responsibility.  The church belongs to all of us.
Taking up the mantle of leadership is scary business, to be sure. After all, we do not know the consequences of assuming that mantle.  However, it is the only way that we will survive and move beyond this “failure to thrive” diagnosis that afflicts so many mainstream churches today.  It  will take all of us to follow God faithfully, to lead one another to where we believe the spirit is taking us, to experience failure to be sure but also to believe in the God-given success we will discover as we find our way.  
Elisha had to swat the water of the Jordan River  - and faithfully wait before the waters parted.  It took courage to do that instead of giving up. We too must never be afraid of failure nor of taking a bold step toward where we believe is God’s guiding us. 
All this of course, will involve trying out new ideas.  And when someone tries something new, it is up to the rest of us to support and follow – no matter who the leader happens to be. This ministry business is not exclusively a “clergy thing”, you know.
We are all in this together, and our work is to build up this community into a place where we can deepen our relationship with Jesus and to live out all that he stood for in his ministry, a place where we can confidently invite others to be part of the Body of Christ as well. As Episcopal priest Mary Brennan Thorpe noted, “ Our work together, you and I, is to build this (church) in the Spirit, so that each person who walks through those doors for the first time will say, ‘I feel something here – something special – and I want to participate in this!’”
         We are all in this together, so let’s think seriously about making this pact among ourselves:  First, we will look forward as Elisha learned to do. Second, we will not look back except in gratitude for the double dose of the Spirit which I trust we have been given to make our church – perhaps small in numbers but with the potential to be big in compassion and forgiveness and welcome (which is what is really important) – to make our church all that God calls it to be.  And third, like Elisha, each one of us will, with God’s help, pick up the mantle we have been offered and assume the role of leader as we have been challenged to do.






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Friday, June 28, 2019

1 Kings 19:1-18 "Listening for the Still, Small Voice"

        Elijah was in a funk. At least, that is how we find him this morning, moping in the middle of a wilderness desert, bemoaning his life and doubting his calling, shaking his fist at Yahweh/God in anger, frustration and abject fear: “It is too much.  I have had it.  I am out of here.  Take my life. I am ready to join my ancestors in the grave.  I might as well be dead.”
         What gives?  After all, this is the Elijah who, just a day earlier, was riding high.  He was #1, the greatest prophet the Israelites had ever known, practically able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.  
In one of the greatest pyrotechnic displays ever, he had given the Israelites solid reason to believe that their God/ Yahweh was the greatest thing since sliced bread.  Now, however, a mere 24 hours later, Elijah is hiding out under a scrubby solitary broom tree out in the middle of nowhere, scared stiff.
         What happened?  According to the writer of the Biblical Book of 1 Kings, just yesterday, Elijah was confidently taunting all 300 prophets of the local god, Baal, after crushing them in a contest of theological power and might. Baptist pastor Linda Pepe describes the afternoon like this:  
"My God’s bigger than your God,"  Elijah says, "and to prove it,  I challenge you Baal followers to a contest. Here are the rules:
I'll build an altar over here - you build an altar over there...I'll get a bull- you get a bull.  I'll cut my bull in half and lay him on my altar- you cut your bull in half and lay him on your altar.
Then we'll each pray to our God, and whichever God can send a flame first, wins!”
And the Baal followers agree, and the contest begins...
Baal’s prophets start calling on their god... and calling on their god.... and calling on their god... and after a few hours of cheerleading and chanting and singing and praying... there is still no fire.
Elijah, sitting on the ground with his back leaned up against his altar, watching this spectacle like he is at a Saturday afternoon matinee, starts heckling...  "Hey, Baal guys.... is your God asleep?  Is Baal on vacation?"
Eventually the Baal guys get  frustrated… of course… cause there’s no fire, and in an attempt to show their sincerity and devotion to Baal, they start cutting themselves with knives and rocks..so now there’s blood everywhere and people are crying and carrying on and finally Elijah says.. "Enough!"   
 And when the bleeding stops he motions to the followers of Baal and to everyone else in the theater...
“Come close… Watch this…”
Now, Elijah knew God would come through. And it would have been easy enough to just pray a simple prayer and God would have set the Elijah's altar ablaze!  But in a stunning act of showmanship…Elijah has his attendants soak his altar with water... and then he has them soak it with more water.... and then even more water!  
And then he stands back and says in a loud stage whisper... “Ok God, do your stuff!”  And of course the altar goes up in flames, (and, in that moment of unbridled triumph, Elijah orders all the Baal prophets slaughtered.)” 
After that fiery spectacle, it is no wonder that Elijah claimed to be #1 as far as any ancient prophets go. King Ahab, for his part, is taken aback by it all.  However, his wife, Queen Jezebel, being a Baal worshipper herself, is livid – white hot with rage.  She sends a threatening word to Elijah, “The gods will get you for this and I’ll get even with you! By this time tomorrow you’ll be as dead as any one of those prophets.”
Well, you do not have to be much of a prophet to know that when someone like Queen Jezebel gets her hackles up, you better take her seriously.  Not surprisingly then, Elijah’s courage and bravado melt.  
He flees hastily to Beersheba in Judah and there leaves his servant and all his belongings behind and hikes alone into the wilderness – a sure sign that he has had it.  That is where we find him today, pleading with God/Yahweh to do to him what Jezebel had threatened to do in the first place.
However, even though God had readily answered Elijah’s prayers the day before in the bull-burning contest, God did not answer Elijah’s prayer to take his life.  Apparently, even though Elijah had had enough of God, God had not had enough of Elijah. 
You see,  when the old prophet awoke, stiff and sore from lying on the ground, he found a large thermos of cool, clean water and some freshly baked bread wrapped in a towel and an angel from the Holy One on the sidelines with a message, “Get up and eat. You have got a long journey ahead of you.”
          And it was a long journey too – 40 days, we are told – before Elijah ended up at Mount Sinai, the holy mountain, where Moses had received the Law and where every Israelite believed deep in his or her heart that God/Yahweh resided.  There Elijah found a cave, crawled inside, and went to sleep.
         However, not long after, the voice of God awakened him. “Elijah, what are you doing here? What are you doing here? What are you doing here?
         In spite of the fact that God had provisioned him with food for the journey (because who else would be so kind at midnight in the middle of nowhere?), Elijah was still in a funk. “I am pretty upset right now.  I have been working my fingers to the bone for you, God/Yahweh,” he complained in a whining sort of voice. “However, the people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed the places of worship, and murdered your prophets. I am the only one left (boo, hoo), and now they are trying to kill me.”
         Now, God might have been sympathetic.  "Oh, I am so sorry because I know you have worked hard, and you are a wonderful prophet. Take some time to moan and groan and regroup."  But no:  Instead God says to the bone-tired, stiff and cranky, funked out, scared old prophet, “Get out of this cave.  And while you are at it, go stand on the mountain before the Lord, for you are about to witness the glory of God."
         And that is when the divine extravaganza began.  One Bible translation puts it this way: “A hurricane wind ripped through the mountains and shattered the rocks before God, but God wasn’t to be found in the wind; after the wind an earthquake, but God wasn’t in the earthquake; and after the earthquake fire, but God wasn’t in the fire; and after the fire a gentle and quiet whisper.”
         All this time, of course, Elijah, patently ignoring God’s demand, was still curled up in the back of the cave with his blanket over his head.  It was not until after the earthquake, wind, and fire had ceased, after he had heard the still small voice that seemed to enfold him gently and lovingly – it was only then that he ventured to the mouth of the cave, still huddled under his blanket. 
“A quiet voice – God’s voice - asked, ‘So Elijah, now tell me, what are you doing here?’’
Elijah repeated himself once again, though not in that whining sort of voice, but more with a tired honesty, “I have been working my fingers to the bone for you, God/Yahweh.  However, the people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed the places of worship, and murdered your prophets. I am the only one left and now they are trying to kill me – and I am exhausted.”
Same lament, but this time, something had changed.  As UCC pastor, Abigail Henderson notes, “Apparently hot cakes and water and angels didn’t completely cut it. What was needed, really needed, was God.  And not the fiery, all-powerful version of God that we would expect having read other parts of the Hebrew Bible, where wind, earthquake, and fire are exactly the kind of places where you find God.  This time, in this story, the sound of silence is more powerful than angels, or God-given sustenance, or the earth literally shaking with God’s might.”
Maybe it was because Elijah had really stopped and listened that God answered him differently – or that he heard God for the first time: “Go back, Elijah.  Go back to being a prophet.  Go back to anointing kings.”
It was not in the raging wind or the rock-shattering earthquake or the heat of the flames that Elijah heard what God had to say. It was only after the gentle whisper had gotten his attention and propelled him to the mouth of the cave that he heard God:  “Go back, and know that I am always with you on your journey, wherever it may lead. Go back, and know that I am God. Stick with me, and all things are possible.”
Surely those words – filled with their quiet strength – are ones that, at one time or another, we all need to hear.  As Linda Pepe wrote, “Our journey with God sometimes calls us to do things and be things that we may not want to do, or didn’t ever see ourselves doing.  There might be times when things get scary. But what we can learn, through Elijah,  that when things happen, and when the road gets hard…  that it's ok to be afraid, or worried, or frustrated;  it’s even ok to feel like giving up…We can have one version of what our future (or our call) is supposed to look like, but sometimes God has another.  And that's scary!”
(God sends Elijah back to do the ministry to which he was called.  Likewise, the Holy One is always sending us back as well. Sometimes though, it seems that only God knows that) all of us, no matter what our age, or  health, or ability level, or energy level have something unique to add to the kingdom.  
Does that mean that we’ll never be afraid or worried or tired or want to just crawl under the covers and say, ‘I’m done, God!’?  No.... it just means that ministry isn’t always what we plan.“
One blogger I read this week put it this way, “Sometimes when we're afraid and think God does not have our back, we go and hide….(However,  it is important) to stay in the game and trust God to see us through.”
With that gentle whisper, God sends Elijah back to work as a prophet, not unlike the Risen Christ will send his disciples back into the world to do the work they were called to do.  In both instances, they will be restored when restoration seemed impossible.  In both instances, they will find their courage when they thought they had no courage.  
In short, God refuses to let Elijah quit – and that is important.  In our 21stcentury world where God does not seem to be doing much in the way of divine extravaganzas, we might do well to take a page from Elijah’s story and listen instead for the gentle whisper of God – because I believe that is how we will be assured that God is still speaking – and that the message is still the same.  God refuses to let us quit.
We will hear God sending us back, back out of this sanctuary, back into the world. Heaven knows, there is enough for all of us to do in our churches, homes, communities, and workplaces - asylum seekers in need of support, our nation’s relationship with Iran in need of prayers, lonely seniors in need of a visit, so many in need of health insurance or an end to their violent world.  
I do not know where God is calling you or calling this church.  However, I believe we miss the point of Elijah’s story if we wait around for earthquakes, wind, and fire to guide us.  We will find out where we are supposed to be and what we are supposed to be doing by listening for the whisper of God, for that gentle nudge, that flash of intuition that guides us here instead of there, in this direction instead of that.  
Those who know me, however, also know that I do not think we will hear that voice very much inside these four walls. They are too cave-like, and the gentle whisper can be too easily be drowned out by the trappings of worship. 
The still small voice of God will be in the voices of the marginalized and the down-and-out.  The still small voice will be “out there”. “Out there” is where we will find our purpose and our courage - which is to be the hands and feet of Jesus in a world of hurt and need.  
Like Elijah, we may be in a funk – as individuals perhaps but certainly as just about every mainstream church congregation is today.  Does this sound familiar? “We have worked so hard and done so much and nothing has happened.  We are still a small church.  Our attendance is still dropping.  We feel bone-tired, stiff and cranky, funked out, scared.” It is Elijah in the cave all over again – thousands of years later.
The parallels in the stories are strikingly similar, but the question still remains: Will the endings be the same?  Elijah emerged from his funk when he chose to listen to the still small voice of God at the mouth of the cave.  Will we also listen?  I hope so because, if we do, the words, we will find, will be the same: “Get out of this cave and go back, and know that I am always with you on your journey, wherever it may lead.  Go back, and know that I am God.  Stick with me, and all things are possible.”

Friday, June 21, 2019

1 Corinthians 12:12-19 Pentecost Gifts

         The last time we found ourselves in an Upper Room in Jerusalem was following Jesus’ crucifixion. His disciples, terrified of being apprehended and similarly executed, were in hiding.  
This time, it is exactly seven weeks and one day after the first Sabbath of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (also called Passover and the day of the disciples’ last supper with Jesus). Or, you could say it was seven full weeks after the all-important first grain harvest in Israel. 
Either way, it was the fiftieth day, which in Jewish tradition made it the Festival of Weeks, which later became known as Pentecost in Jewish circles because that is what the word means in Greek.  The  Holy City was filled with Jews from all over the ancient world because this was one of their three most important pilgrimage festivals.  
From the window of that Upper Room, it looked and smelled and sounded like a global market place down below.  You could see the brightly colored garb characteristic of each tribe and culture.  The odor of native dishes cooked on makeshift stoves wafted upward.  And the cacophony of sounds!  So many languages blended together amidst the laughter and singing. 
This particular festival had a double significance for the Jews gathered there.  You see, men, women, and children had descended on the Holy City to celebrate not only the first fruits of the wheat harvest, but also to glorify Yahweh/God’s giving of the Torah, the Law, to the Israelites assembled long ago at the base of Mount Sinai.  
Fifty days earlier, Passover had recalled the story of the Hebrew slaves escaping from Egypt and finding their freedom.  Today, the Festival of Weeks celebrated the fact that Jews were a nation committed to serving Yahweh/God through the Mosaic law.
In this setting we find the disciples – now called apostles – along with others who believed the stories of Jesus rising from the dead.  We find them all in an Upper Room down a back alleyway just off the main drag in the Jerusalem.  
In that upper room – like the Jews in the street below - perhaps they were remembering their checkered history with the God who still loved them.  After all, their whole heritage betrayed a certain rhythm:  Turning away from God, yet time and time again God welcoming them back and continuing to care for them. Exile and return.  Faithlessness and faithfulness.  Independence and dependence. 
 Or maybe the apostles were thinking about the warm harvest days back in their hometowns.  It seemed so long ago that they had gathered in their local synagogues with the first armfuls of grain to offer to God in gratitude for the sun and the occasional rain and the fertile soil.  
Or it could be that they were once again recalling that last Passover Meal they had shared with Jesus 50 days before.  He had instructed them then to keep sharing such meals as a way to remember him and all that he stood for – the compassion, the forgiveness, the open arms of welcome, the helping hands of service. 
However, those stream of consciousness memories took a back seat to what was foremost on their minds. You see, before Jesus had disappeared for good, he had instructed them to wait - to wait for the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Breath of God that he proclaimed would always be there with them.  And so the apostles were nervously waiting, and some of them were most likely grumbling impatiently.
Why?  Because nothing had happened, and all this waiting was driving them up a wall.  Besides, it was hot and very close in that Upper Room. Mingled with the fragrance of food cooking below was the overwhelming smell of good old-fashioned body odor.  The air was very still, as if anticipating something, like before a wild and wooly thunderstorm.
“Whatever are we doing here?” a few of the apostles wondered. “It is no use. Jesus is gone, and, without Him, it is over!  We might just as well face it. What is this Holy Spirit business anyway?  Surely we misunderstood Jesus.” 
It was then that they heard a sound.  If they had known what a freight train was, they would have said it was beginning to sound like a freight train right outside their window. Within moments, it was drowning out the global linguistic demonstration in the street below. Though they did not know it at the time, what the apostles heard was the Breath of God beginning to blow into that Upper Room.  
Though it first felt like a blessed breeze to cool them off and thankfully freshen up the air, soon it felt more like the rush of a mighty wind. The curtains flapped helplessly.  Bits of food – bread and olives and grapes – were swept off the table. Andrew tried to catch some of it and, in the process, knocked over a pitcher.  Water spilled and cascaded onto the dirt floor.  Dust bunnies in the corners of the room swirled and twirled in eddies like tiny tornados.  
When the apostles looked at each other, they noticed right away that all of them sported little flames – tongues of fire – above their heads. The fires were not burning them – or even really touching them, but they were just hovering there.  Still, they felt their hearts and their hands strangely warmed.
Not knowing what else to do, the whole lot of them poured out into the street below. They caused quite a ruckus because they could not help babbling about what had happened up there – the wind, the fires, the flying food, the overturned pitcher, and the water cascading to the dirt floor.  
The people who saw this spectacle were both amazed and confused. You see, even though the apostles were speaking as Galileans would speak, everyone gathered there for the Festival who had traveled from the four corners of the ancient world and spoke a different dialect understood what the apostles were saying. Language was no barrier. 
Was this a miracle?  Some of them thought so.  Others wrote off the apostles as drunk, even though it was only 9:00 A.M.  “A hundred bottles of beer on the wall, a hundred bottles of beer….”
Then Peter stood on the top step, surrounded by the other original apostles, and spoke in a loud voice.  “Fellow Jews…” 
 And this illiterate fisherman who had spent three years following Jesus and chasing his dreams for a transformed world, who never really understood Jesus’ mission and had put his foot in his mouth more than once, who seldom could string two sentences together without getting something wrong, this illiterate fisherman - out of the blue - preached his first sermon, and it was the sermon of a lifetime.  
Peter seemed to know Scripture backwards and forwards and extensively quoted the prophet Joel:  “I will pour out my Spirit on everyone.  Your sons and daughters will proclaim my message.  Your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams.” Then he witnessed to Jesus and all that he stood for.  
It was a doozy of a preaching debut because, the author of the Book of Acts goes on to say, 3000 people became followers of the Way of Jesus that day alone.  Now isn’t that every preacher’s dream? 
And so the Holy Spirit did come to those who waited.  It came like the wind.  It set the apostles’ hearts ablaze.  And on that day and in that diverse gathering, the church – the Christian Church - our church - was born.
Today – Pentecost – is one of the three major festivals in the Christian liturgical year – along with Epiphany (not Christmas) and Easter.  We celebrate Pentecost not because it is a time to give the first fruits of our harvest to God (though showing such gratitude is not a bad thing to do).  We celebrate Pentecost not because we are commemorating the giving of the Torah to the Israelites (though to recognize our ties to Judaism is not a bad thing either). 
We celebrate Pentecost because it signifies the birth of the Church and the beginning of Christian community that makes the church possible.  As Methodist pastor James Howell noted, “At Pentecost, the Spirit rushed, not on this or that individual, but on the Church, on the Body. It’s the church that is birthed, not a gaggle of solo Christians who happen to be near one another, on Pentecost.”  We celebrate Pentecost because it gives sacred meaning to what the Apostle Paul later called the Body of Christ. That is what the church is, after all.  The church is the Body of Christ.  
Christian author Frederick Buechner said it so well, “God was making a body for Christ, Paul said. Christ didn't have a regular body any more so God was making him one out of anybody he could find who looked as if he might just possibly do. He was using other people's hands to be Christ's hands and other people's feet to be Christ's feet, and when there was some place where Christ was needed in a hurry and needed bad, he put the finger on some maybe-not-all-that-innocent bystander and got him to go and be Christ in that place himself for lack of anybody better.”  That is the church: The Body of Christ – made up of anybody God could find who looked as if he might just possibly do, those folks as well as the not-so-innocent bystanders.
This amazing gathering of believers in the streets of Jerusalem on that first Pentecost seemed a fitting conclusion to the story of Jesus: The ones in the Upper Room feeling transformed by the mighty wind. More of them in the streets feeling their hearts ablaze with a fiery passion for good.  All them bound together by a Spirit so hot and holy that it seemed as if Jesus himself was coursing through their veins, splashing onto their hands and feet until they were just itching to help someone in need, settling in their ears so they could hear the cries of pain around them, hiding behind their eyes so they could, for once, see a suffering world.
However, it was not all that easy to actually continue to be the Body of Christ.  The Apostle Paul found that out soon enough.  Not many years later, he was writing to churches inspiring them to solve whatever issues divided them so they could be back in the business of actually doing ministry and – yes - being the Body of Christ in the world.
The church in Corinth was no exception.  That congregation was divided over spiritual gifts and whether deacons were to be more highly valued than Sunday School teachers and trustees more than treasurers.  Some folks were doing a lot with their gifts.  Others were doing nothing to support their faith community except taking for granted that it would always be there for them.  So Paul took the bull by the horns and used the metaphor of a human body for the Body of Christ in the hopes of motivating the little congregation.  
The conclusion Paul so eloquently presented was that no single person can do everything.  If the church in Corinth – or any church for that matter - is to survive, everyone needs to be involved.  As he wrote in his letter:
A body isn’t just a single part blown up into something huge. It’s all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together. 
If Foot said, “I’m not elegant like Hand, embellished with rings; I guess I don’t belong to this body,” would that make it so? If Ear said, “I’m not beautiful like Eye, limpid and expressive; I don’t deserve a place on the head,” would you want to remove it from the body?
 The point Paul was making was that, because no single person can do everything, everyone needs to do something for the body – if the Body of Christ – or the human body for that matter - is to work effectively or, over time, to work at all.  “I cannot do anything.  I do not have time.  I do not have an inclination.  Someone else will step up and do it” are no more than excuses and have no place if the Body of Christ is to survive and thrive. The long and the short of it is that there are no insignificant members of the Body of Christ.  The Church is not like a country club.  We are all in this ministry business together.
In this day and age when the Church - the Body of Christ – is in a particularly weakened position – more so here in Maine than in any other state actually – what with declining attendance and a lot of questioning about the church’s relevance in our post-modern secular culture – in this weakened state, the Church, the Body of Christ, the Body of Christ here in Raymond, needs each one of you.  
Sometimes I think we have the wrong idea of what it means to be the Body of Christ and to do the work of the church. There seems to be a fairly widespread belief that, as blogger Ray Steadman wrote, “the real work of the church is getting together and having a great meeting on Sunday morning where we enjoy learning from the Scriptures and fellowshipping with one another.”  And so we write into our busy calendars to show up for worship, expecting our pastor to draw in a big crowd and what evangelism each person may  do is focused on – what?
"Come to our church. Our preacher wears golf shirts and jogging shoes." 
"Come to our church! We wear shorts and sandals." 
"We're fundamental." 
"We're liturgical." 
"We're liberal." 
"We're moderate." 
"We're denominational." 
"We're mainline." 
"We're dispensational." 
"We have video." 
"We have snare drums and screens." 
"We're into political reform." 
"We have a religious superstar preaching today."
         Whatever happened to all that Jesus stood for?  Now do not get me wrong.  I am thankful for the contribution of the choir on Sunday mornings.  I am grateful for the role the deacons play.  Those are gifts you are sharing, but they are only gifts in light of what they do to inspire all of us to do the real work of the church.  
Being the Body of Christ takes place out there, beyond these walls.  Sunday worship is a training program - albeit an important one.  As Stedman observed, “We do not come to church to fulfill the work of the church. We come here to get ready to fulfill it out there.” 
         Out there is where your gifts are really needed – in addition to those you may share in here. In fact, your gifts are essential out there – in the community - where I am pretty darn sure the Spirit is leading us. 
And like the church Paul started in ancient Corinth,  God gives different gifts to each one of you:
Some, a passion for peace;
Others,  a passion for the wellbeing of the earth.
Some,  a passion for the sacredness of life;
Others, a passion for forgiveness and mercy.
Some, a passion for the redistribution of wealth;
Others, a passion for asylum seekers and a compassionate immigration policy.
Some, a passion for evangelism;
Others, a passion for justice.
At least one of those gifts is your gift, and when offered in the church works for the common good. The same Spirit gives them, and they are all necessary to effectively do the work of the Church.  
And so my prayer for you this Pentecost Sunday is that you will feel the breath of the Spirit in your soul fanning a glowing ember in your heart.  I pray that you will discover that the ember is your gift and that you will nurture that gift because, whatever it is, it is essential to our church here in Raymond. And finally, I pray that you will more intentionally share that gift, that passion, that glowing ember, so that together we can indeed be the Body of Christ – a real Christian community – right here in Raymond.


Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Acts 16:6-12 "Listen"

         Let me begin by saying that I am not one who believes that God opens up a parking space for me on a crowded street when I am in a hurry, nor do I believe that God dictates my every move. You see, I like to think that God has more important things to worry about than whether I am late for my dentist appointment or if I take the high road or the low road on any given day.  I also believe that God has more important things to worry about even than that the Yankees are five games ahead of Boston, in spite of the fervent prayers of die-heard Red Sox fans.
I am definitely a believer in free will – and good pitching.  However, I also believe that God is still speaking in these crazy times we live in.  Moreover, I believe that God takes a deep and profound interest in the church that seeks to realize God’s dream for a world built on compassion and grounded in forgiveness, whose people have a soft spot in their hearts for the poor and the outcasts on the fringes of society. I likewise believe that, in ways I will never fully understand, the Spirit still nudges me – and the church – along the path, albeit circuitous at times, that will lead to the fulfillment of God’s dream – if only we will be open to its nudging as we muddle our way through life. 
The journey that led me here 13+ years ago to be your pastor is an example of what I mean.  Looking back on it, it was certainly a journey that came to its conclusion in a very roundabout way.  
You see, I was always a bit envious of many of my classmates when I was in seminary – the ones who were so directed and who had known that they had been called to ministry years before arriving at Yale Divinity School. It was as if they had been born with a cross and a clerical collar around their necks.  
I, on the other hand, came into this ministry business through the back door.  It all began when I traveled to New Haven, Connecticut, to visit a college roommate – arriving on Friday as an innocent guest and leaving on Sunday an enthusiastic prospective student.  And, no, I was not struck by a bolt of lightning there in the seminary quadrangle at the top of Prospect Street.  
However, I was struck by the fact that being at Yale would surely be far more exciting and fun than living at home in New Jersey, working as a secretary in the music department of the local college during the week and as a Howard Johnson’s waitress on the weekends – especially after spilling that large glass of soda down the front of one embarrassed teenage boy who had been trying so hard to impress his date.
Of course, I had no idea what I wanted to do at Yale Divinity School.  In fact, I nearly left after two years with a Master of Arts in religion degree, figuring that I could at least teach in a prep school.  
You see, to stay a third year and graduate with a Master of Divinity degree would require my working as a hospital chaplain for a while, which terrified me, as well as taking a preaching course – which terrified me even more.
I was not sure why at the time, but I stayed for that third year. It was one full of surprises for me. I ended up doing more hospital chaplaincy work than was called for - and enjoyed it - and I discovered that preaching was not as terrifying as I thought it would be.  
I became ordained and spent the next two years as the Protestant Chaplain at the University of Vermont before getting up the nerve to seek a church of my own.  That was when I found out that, even though I had been told for three years at Yale that being a woman in ministry was the greatest thing since sliced bread, that word had not reached most congregations yet.  
Back in those days, most women clergy were relegated to small rural churches that could not afford to call a man or multi-staffed churches that sought the appearance of political correctness before that was even a buzzword, but really envisioned their female assistant pastor as the one to run the Sunday School and preach on the lowest of the low Sundays - those directly following Christmas and Easter.
I could not do it.  No - I just could not do it, and so I returned to school for another master’s degree at the University of Minnesota, this one at the business school, in human resources where I concentrated in compensation and benefits.  After a year and a half, I was a veritable whizz at salary surveys.  
It was in Minneapolis that I met Joe again after seven years apart, got married, moved to Washington, DC, and worked first at a bank and later at a business that was the precursor to BJ’s and Sam’s Club.  That was also around the time that Heather was born – and Padraic not far behind – and we moved to Maine – and then came Tim – and then Joe and I were inevitably trying to figure out how to juggle home and work life.  
So I founded a preschool, so I could be with our kids more – and started doing guest preaching because I still enjoyed leading worship – and then I began doing interim ministry – and then chaplaincy work with senior citizens – and then finally I met with one search committee here that was disbanded and then a second one before that marvelous day in July when I led worship for all of you and waited downstairs with Joe in the Vestry until Rolf appeared to tell me that you had voted to call me as your pastor and teacher. 
And so here we are – together – and I cannot help marveling how God works in mysterious ways and how the Spirit guides us to people and places that were certainly not part of our best laid plans – if only we will listen and let ourselves be led.
So it was with the Apostle Paul in the passage we just heard.  Paul was gearing up for his second extended missionary trip.  Previously, around 46 CE, he and his sidekick Barnabas had traveled from Antioch to Cyprus, Perga, Paphos, Lystra, Iconium, and Derbe.  All along the way, this "bald-headed, bowlegged, strongly built man who was small in size, with meeting eyebrows, with a rather large nose" (at least that is how one non-Biblical narrative described him), all along the way Paulpreached the Good News of Jesus Christ, healed some sick folk, performed a miracle or two, got into a bunch of arguments, and was once nearly stoned to death.
On this second missionary journey, Paul’s intent was to take his team and re-visit the places he had been before.  “Let’s go back and visit all our friends in each of the towns where we preached the Word of God. Let’s see how they’re doing,” Paul had said to Barnabas.
 The Apostle’s plan was to re-engage the population with some of his first-rate passionate preaching and to shore up, if necessary, and, in general, strengthen the churches he had established the first time around.  And so Paul and Silas this time left Jerusalem and headed north.  
They traveled through Damascus to Antioch and then around to Tarsus.  From there they revisited Derbe and Lystra as planned.  They seemed to be doing a bang up job too.  We read in the Book of Acts that “day after day the congregations became stronger in faith and larger in size.”  
         Who could have asked for more?  One would have thought that God would be tickled pink! But apparently not!  I mean, Paul kept running into roadblocks as he attempted to push further into Asia where he was sure he was supposed to be going. After all, anywhere else would have been infiltrating strongholds of pagans and non-Jews.  
Eventually (and not according to plan) he ended up in Troas, a coastal city located on the Aegean Sea near the northern tip of Turkey's western coast.  It was the port where one would set sail for Greece and Philippi and therefore was a bridge of sorts between Asia and Europe.  It was the link between two cultures -  Jewish and Gentile.
It was there in Troas that something unexpected happened to Paul and his carefully laid out itinerary really went awry.  One night, as the Apostle was going over the next day’s schedule and route, he had a vision.  We do not know exactly what that vision entailed except that Paul remembered seeing a man on the far shore of the Aegean Sea, waving his arms as if to personally flag him down, and shouting loud enough that Paul could hear him above the wind and the waves and in spite of the distance, begging him to “Come over to Macedonia, and help us.”
Because of what had happened once to him on the road outside Damascus when he was struck temporarily blind and heard the voice of Jesus himself, Paul had reason to take visions seriously.  Immediately he switched gears and found himself with Silas on a boat that would take them from Troas to the island of Samothrace, and once refueled, onward to the city of Neapolis.  And from there they traveled to Philippi, which was a principal city in Macedonia. And in crossing over to Macedonia, the Good News of Jesus Christ was preached in Europe for the first time.  In the biggest surprise of all, Paul successfully announced the Gospel to the Gentiles.
 As Anglican pastor Tim Chesterton noted, “What on earth was Paul doing? As a young Jewish man he had gone to Jerusalem to be tutored by the famous rabbi Gamaliel, and he had learned a deep devotion to the law of Israel and the traditions of the Pharisees. 
According to those traditions, the Jews were to stay away from Gentiles, who were not God’s chosen people. But now Paul (found) himself in a city in the province of Macedonia, in what is now northern Greece – a city that was a Roman colony, a city where there were so few Jews that there wasn’t even a synagogue where they could gather for prayer. I wonder if he asked himself, ‘What am I doing here?’” 
Sometimes, you know, you do not get to do what you think you want to do.  Sometimes life disappoints you – or at least surprises you.  Paul thought he was called to preach to the Jews in Asia about Jesus the Christ but instead he ended up preaching to the non-Jews, the Gentiles, in Europe. 
 As a result, Christianity became more than a cult within Judaism.  Sometimes a new direction comes from what you thought was a dead end.  Sometimes when you thought everything had gone wrong, it really had not gone wrong at all.
As Presbyterian pastor John Lentz noted, what “a marvelous, holy thought to believe that the obstacle may be a blessing, that the job lay off may be a call to something new, the broken relationship may be just what you need…..Disappointment is a call to take stock and change direction. Next time you are awake in the dead of night, wondering what the next step is going to be – remember this story, new visions don’t come easily, they arise in the crucible of tension, of anxiety, of grief – choices mean doing “this” and not “that,” going “here” and not “there.”
Of course, you and I may not have visions like Paul.  Our lives may never be quite that dramatic.  However, do not ever think that the Spirit has passed us by.  You have hopes around which the Spirit swirls. You have dreams that the Spirit churns up inside of you.  You wrestle as Paul did with what you are supposed to be doing.  You too seek clarity in your life.  
It is the same with our church.  As a congregation, we have hopes for this place.  We have our dreams.  We should never think that the Spirit has passed us by. No - it is swirling and churning in these four walls as we discern where we are supposed to go and what we are supposed to be in the 21stcentury, as we seek clarity about our mission as the Body of Christ here in Raymond. 
 Are you disappointed in our church?  Are you discouraged that more people do not seek us out on Sunday mornings? Is it a bummer for you that we did not have a burgeoning Sunday School this year? 
Remember what John Lentz wrote, “Disappointment is a call to take stock and change direction.” If you are disappointed, discouraged, feeling bummed out about our church, then it is time – not to turn away but rather to intentionally listen to the Spirit around here – and change direction.  It is the time to open our eyes and hears and heart to see and hear and discern where God is calling us as a congregation.  
Are we to be more involved in outreach and service?  Are we to share this space – this sanctuary even - more and more with the community? Are we to promote the spirituality of music and the arts?  Are we to be a safe place for young families – or a spiritual home for retirees? 
Intentional listening to the Spirit is the key – and that is not easy. As Lutheran pastor Janet Hunt pointed out, “We are all too busy. There are a thousand ways we can spend our days, our energies, our efforts. Choices abound. However, in this abundance of choices, what would it mean if we simply wondered how God is speaking in the midst of all of this?
·               Indeed, might we then find ourselves, like Paul, called to "Macedonia," (to new ministries that may seem unimaginable now)? 
·               What do you suppose would happen if we then simply 'set sail' and went, (committing ourselves to trying new things)? 
·               And what sorts of surprises might be waiting for us (if we do)? 
Someone said to me recently that she needed more guidance and concrete direction about new ministries for our church. Oh – if I were only the font of such wisdom and new ideas! Unfortunately, even as your pastor, I cannot be the only one listening for the Spirit. 
Actually, most particularly as your pastor, I cannot be the only one listening.  Ministries that will stick are better off coming from you than from me.  However, I can support you  - and I will - in not only coming up with new idea for ministry, but also in pursuing them. 
If you think the Spirit is nudging you, take a chance and listen. It may amount to nothing.  After all, some of our good ideas have not worked. The Gathering Space for seniors we tried a couple of years ago never gained traction.  Youth Group movies worked for a while, but certainly not long term.  We sense that a traditional weekly Sunday School may be outdated.  The thing is, however, that we will never know about a particular idea – or notion – or what we think may be a nudge of the Spirit - unless we try it. 
 I can tell you though that, as with Paul, new ideas frequently come about in the most surprising ways. Often they are first nurtured by a few brave advocates out of sight, under the radar. Frequently, they finally blossom out of necessity or out of someone’s interests and passions.  
Take our diverse music program.  Because our choir members are not able to make a weekly commitment (which could have been seen as such a negative), we have been able to host wonderful musicians who have enriched our ideas of what church music can be – from oboe to ukulele, violin to mandolin, vocalists to jazz guitar.  And Patrick has been able to focus our choir on a few big offerings – like Palm Sunday and Easter and our All Things Silent Night Advent vespers service. As a result, we are a stronger and more exciting place to be on Sunday mornings for those who want to be in church. 
And our free community friendship meals?  They grew out of an interest of Deborah and Arthur Lafond.  On a wing and a prayer, we hosted that first turkey dinner, never dreaming that over 50 people would attend – and volunteers would cheerfully step up to make it happen.  
I am convinced that is how God works – full of surprises and new directions and perfect paths forward gone awry.  It is like the old saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell God your best laid plans.” 
So - let’s be open to change. Let’s be open to trying something new. Let’s even be open to failure.  Let’s be open to listening to what the Spirit might be trying to tell us.  
As worship consultant Marcia McFee noted, “At a certain point in the creative process, we may rely too much on our preconceived ideas about how it will all turn out. Our egos get in the way of seeing the possibilities we could not have seen before. We have only a partial vision, but God is seeing all the parts. Paul’s listening to the “what’s next” for his journey led him to an unlikely (place and unimaginable ministry). Can we look and listen long enough to see differently?” 
         And so my challenge to you this morning is, when you leave this place, do not leave just thinking about your to do list for this afternoon.  Do not leave and put worship and God and ministry and this church away until next Sunday:  Out of sight, out of mind.  
Rather, as you make your way home and in the days ahead this week, take the time to wonder about what God has been saying to you in this hour of worship. What is it that you are supposed to take from this? What are you meant to learn?  In what new direction might you take our church?
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