Galatians 5:1, 13-25
“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
That was Paul’s advice to the church in Galatia. “For freedom Christ has set us free.” A few paragraphs later he advises what not to do. “Do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh… Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these…those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
He speaks first of freedom – and then, almost immediately, speaks of restrictions. It reeks of contradiction!
The concept of freedom is certainly important in our culture. One of the emphases is on personal freedom. We hear that emphasis in so many areas of our national life. People speak about the need to keep their resources away from the government – the “It’s mine, I earned it” mentality. Here, in Florida, we have the stand your ground law that puts a premium on personal space and the right to defend it at all costs. We’re programmed by the culture to ask, first, how things affect or will affect us personally. The reasoning is: “We live in a free country. Therefore, we should be free to do what we want!”
Years ago, someone told Mark that the church ought to take all responsibility for those who couldn’t take care of themselves, those who had become a burden on society. He felt that it was an imposition upon him and his family to be asked to do anything for others. He wasn’t a church goer. But, the church ought to do what he was unwilling to do.
It is a sentiment that often gets put forward. Why should we, as a nation, be concerned about those who struggle? Our freedom is to be unencumbered!
“For freedom Christ has set us free.” This assertion may be, in some ways, one of the foundations of our existence. We speak about the various freedoms that we have pledged to uphold. The first amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
“Freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly.” Those freedoms are basic to who we are and to how we approach life. And, in today’s world, they are often heard and interpreted as individual freedoms. In fact, an individualistic reading of the second amendment has led to the battle over the possession of firearms. “The right of people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed upon.”
This individualistic approach has led to all sorts of divisions. People proclaim the right to freedom of religion – and then force their practices, beliefs, and perspectives on the society of a whole. I was struck by the story of the woman in Tampa who complained about the rainbow flag the city flew to offer its support to the Pulse Nightclub victims. “I’m a Christian,” she had declared. “Flying the flag creates a hostile work environment.” Her “freedom” was, in her eyes, compromised by the city’s willingness to offer support in the face of unimaginable tragedy. For her, freedom was a personal right that could not be compromised by others. We see this over and over again as particular segments of society demand that society abide by its codes and beliefs and practices. Freedom, for them, means never having to acknowledge or be threatened by others’ differences.
“For freedom Christ has set us free,” Paul said. “Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
“Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” I think we are to keep those words in mind as we hear Paul’s words about the flesh’s desires. Professor Robert Bryant says that this isn’t a passage that speaks about a Greek notion of duality – that the mortal world is tainted and the spiritual world is pure. Instead, when Paul speaks of the flesh he is using a sort of shorthand. Living in the “flesh” is self-centered rather than God-centered living. Slavery comes in many guises. Sometimes we are enslaved by our very selves. We see that in addictions. People are enslaved by their need for drugs or alcohol. But we also get enslaved in other ways. “The works of the flesh are obvious,” Paul said, “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife jealousy, anger, quarrels, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” These attitudes enslave because the self is the center of all things.
Professor Mark Douglas says we live with the notion that freedom means the absence of entanglements, when, in actuality, entanglements are the means by which freedom becomes meaningful. “Freedom is not separation from relationships; it is a feature of relationships that becomes especially apparent as a result of our relationship with Jesus Christ.” When the self is the center of our universe, it is almost impossible to see and hear and be concerned about others. I think that’s evident in the complaint from the woman in Tampa. She can’t see beyond her own interpretation of the faith so she can’t have concern for those who have been hurt and those who are mourning.
Bryant says “Christian freedom is not unrestrained permission to do whatever one pleases.” We are freed to follow God’s ways, to let God claim us and shape us and direct us. We choose that path. It is not forced on us.
Today’s gospel lesson could be an example of what it means to be free. Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” We have heard so much theology that speaks of God putting the son to death on the cross that we are in danger of missing the Biblical witness that speaks of Jesus choosing to be faithful. Of course, if he had turned away, we wouldn’t have his story – so it’s tempting to read it through the lens of knowing what happened. Yes, we have to do that to an extent. But, at times, we lose the sense of Jesus, the human being, who was presented with choices. Is that not the story of the temptation? Jesus was challenged to choose to follow God or to place himself first. “Turn this stone into a loaf of bread. Throw yourself down from here. Worship me, and all this will be yours.”
He refused to be “enslaved” by the temptation to put himself first or to allow someone else’s agenda to drive his own. He chose to be faithful to God’s way – because he trusted that God’s way would lead to an unseen fulfillment of promised redemption for all. Following God meant that he had “nowhere to lay his head.”
The Rev. Carol Holtz-Martin wrote about moving from slavery to a freedom found in God. “The first six months I lived overseas after college were awash in loneliness; late each weekday afternoon, I would buy a paperback mystery and read it to make endurable the solitary evening…Finally, it was make-or-break time. I would cut the ties that bound me to my discontent and try my host country on its own terms. With little enthusiasm, I stayed in town to visit a church near my workplace. The second time I showed up, the head usher remembered me, his kindness startling tears into my eyes. The third time I did not duck out during the final hymn and gained an invitation to a home for Sunday dinner. The effect of that loving, laughing, and singing congregation’s connection to Jesus Christ would come to permeate every aspect of my life. It was a wondrous thing to stumble into the hands of the living God.”
She goes on to say that Paul is reminding us that “Christ’s perfect freedom engages us in a call. That call carries obligation to neighbor as well as to God, to invest ourselves in the community of faith, to put up with the sandpaper of fellow congregant’s wearisome ways against the rough edges of our own unholiness.”
Paul describe’s the fruits of the “free” life – life that has chosen to pursue God’s ways. The fruit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.” Those fruits are evident not in a life that doesn’t look beyond the self, but in a life that seeks the well-being of others, the wholeness of the community. He does not put limits on it – that these fruits are to be reserved for a small group of like-minded people. These fruits are to be shared with the world. “There is no law against such things!” No matter what the world might say to us, we are freed to be loving, joyful, patient, kind, generous, faithful, gentle – and self-controlled. Who could make a law against such attributes? It would be impossible to prevent these things – even in the harshest of conditions. I think of the stories of Dietrich Bonnhoeffer – a theologian imprisoned in Nazi Germany. He may have been behind bars, but he lived a God-centered life that demonstrated the fruits of the Spirit. He connected with those around him. He looked beyond himself.
When the Samaritans rejected Jesus, his disciples were tempted to take the worldly way of revenge – in God’s name – and call down fire on them. But Jesus rebuked them. Others spoke of their desire to follow him. But he challenged them to see, recognize and consider the cost. They were free to follow him only if they could let go of the things that enslaved them. His words sound harsh to us. But they are to challenge us to see, recognize, and consider the things that enslave us and prevent us from following God’s ways.
I would like to end with a wonderful prayer I came across yesterday, a prayer from the Celtic tradition. It’s titled “The Knot Prayer,” and plays on the words knot-k, n, o, t, and not, n, o, t.
“Dear God, please untie the knots that are in my mind, my heart, and my life. Remove the have nots, the can nots, and the do nots that I have in my mind. Erase the will nots, may nots, and might nots that find a home in my heart. Release me from the could nots, would nots, and should nots that obstruct my life.
And most of all, dear God, I ask that you remove from my mind, my heart and my life, all of the AM nots that I have allowed to hold me back, especially the thought that I am not good enough.”
A comment was, “We have been set free in Christ!”
Sermon Preached on June 19, 2016 following the Orlando Nightclub Shootings
I Corinthians 11:17-34
At the last session meeting, session voted to continue the practice of celebrating communion (the Lord’s Supper) every Sunday. This was after quite a discussion about the pros and cons, and how people feel about communion as an every Sunday part of the service. I said that maybe it was time to talk about communion and why I think it is a good idea to continue the practice of a weekly observance of this sacrament. I was going to talk about the observance as a way of being hospitable: hospitable to those who see it as an important part of their faith journey and hospitable to those who might not be able to attend worship on a regular basis.
The danger of considering how we observe the Lord’s Supper based on hospitality is that we can get bogged down by personal preferences. If we are hospitable to one person’s desires, we may be in danger of being inhospitable to another’s. Some find weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper an important part of their faith journey. Others say that weekly observance lessens the sacrament’s importance.
Hospitality is an important part of the Christian life. Our primary role, in hospitality within the church, is to be hospitable to God’s redeeming presence. Our hospitality to each other and to strangers flows from our being hospitable to God. So, I think to wrestle with communion, with how it is we practice and observe this sacrament, we need to look beyond ourselves. We need to ask not, “What do I want?” but, “What might God want us to do? How are we to observe this sacrament? What is its purpose and intent?”
I grew up with celebration of the Lord’s Supper as a rare event. I think the normal practice in Presbyterian Churches was to have it four times a year. That was the requirement in our Book of Order, the Directory for Worship. When I went to seminary, thinking about the way we observe this sacrament was beginning to change. There was interest in making this sacrament a more regular part of the life of the church. So, I have been accustomed to a monthly observance. Some have pointed out that there is nothing special, however, about the first Sunday of the month, and that monthly observances often have little to do with the liturgical life of the church. Now, the Book of Worship, suggests that it is appropriate to celebrate the Lord’s Supper every Sunday.
The Lord’s Supper is a, if not the central rite of the Christian Church. It has been acknowledged since the earliest days of Christianity. (Although calling this sacrament The Lord’s Supper is a tradition that developed centuries later.) The gospels, which were written after the church had existed for some time, reflect an awareness of the centrality of this communal act. Paul’s letters also reflect its importance.
Perhaps because it is so important it has contributed to division and even abuse throughout the church’s history. The selection from I Corinthians that I read includes what Protestant liturgy refers to as the “Words of Institution.” I read a larger portion because it points to a reality in the early church. Paul was concerned that the church in Corinth was abusing this important way of remembering Jesus. Communion was, at the beginning of the church, a shared meal. It was the Love Feast. Yet, in Corinth, some people were bringing their meal and eating it without sharing. So, divisions in the community were evident – particularly along economic lines. Those who had, ate. Those who did not, went hungry. Paul challenged this individualistic approach to faith. “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.”
That’s a powerful critique that we need to hear in this modern age of individualism. It’s not about “me.” Communion is about the Body of Christ – it is for the community of believers.
The practice of having a communal meal ended as the church grew and moved from house gatherings to chapels and churches. Instead of an entire meal, just the bread and the cup remained. In the Roman Catholic Church, the meal began to be seen as a re-enactment of the sacrifice of Jesus. The bread and the wine were (and are) understood to be the actual body and blood of Jesus. The rite of the sacrament brings about the change in the elements. Since the bread and the wine became flesh and blood of Jesus, there was concern about the laity’s involvement. First, the cup was denied to laity, because of the danger of spilling the “blood.” Over time, the bread was offered to fewer and fewer people – primarily to the sick. The Lord’s Supper became a mystery that the faithful watched.
The Protestant Reformation began, in part, because of fundamental disagreements over the understanding of the Lord’s Supper. One point of contention was the denial of the cup to the laity. Another was over the theological assertion that the bread and cup became actual body ad blood of Jesus. The Protestant tradition has maintained that we celebrate the real presence of Jesus in the bread and the cup, but that the bread remains bread and the wine or juice remains wine or juice.
Since the participation of the laity had become rare, reformers suggested a more regular observance of the sacrament. Calvin wanted the church to observe every Sunday. As a compromise, he agreed to let it be celebrated in different churches each week.
“Do this in remembrance of me,” we’re told that Jesus said, as he offered his disciples bread and wine. “Do this in remembrance of me.” I think it’s odd that through the centuries, we’ve found all sorts of reasons for “not doing” this. We limit our observance. It is for good reasons. We want to remember that this commandment is something special. So, communion is to be a “special” observance – perhaps quarterly or monthly.
“Do this in remembrance of me.” James White in his book Introduction to Christian Worship says that there have been major changes in Western Christianity in its understanding of the sacraments. “The emerging recovery of the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper) as the norm for Sunday worship …is the gradual shift away from regarding worship as an intellectual experience of instruction or as an emotional outlet to the realization that worship encompasses our total being – body, emotions, and intellect.”
The leader of a workshop on worship suggested that worship is to “tie broad lines” to our everyday lives. Baptism should remind us of our daily rituals of bathing. The Lord’s Supper should remind us of our need for nourishment.
I think he’s right – but, I would suggest, we need to see that in reverse as well. Our daily rituals of bathing should remind us of our baptisms. Our meals should remind us of the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. The ordinary and the sacred come together. The sacred infuses the ordinary with the very presence of God.
White defines the sacraments as something God does and offers us – not something we do for ourselves. “God acts in the sacraments….The sacraments depend upon what God makes of them….God acts in the sacraments to give Godself to us. God takes the initiative….Through the sacraments, God gives Godself to us as love made visible…We need to be shown. (So God feeds us!)..God’s self-giving as love is made visible through relationships of love in community.”
I’ve heard church described as the place where we break the bread and tell the stories. It is like a family gathering around a large table. We’re nourished by the food and by the stories that inform and bind us together. How does it change our understanding if we begin to think of this sacrament as God’s gift to us to nourish and shape us and bind us to one another? How does it change our perception if accept that something might happen here that we don’t control or even understand?
Years ago, as I was driving, I was listening to a radio program that ended with a quote. “A dinner invitation, once accepted, is a sacred obligation. If you die before the dinner takes place, your executor must go in your place.” I had to pull over and write the quote down. We, God’s people, have received the dinner invitation. God wants to meet us. God wants to feed and nourish us – knowing what’s best for us. God is the loving parent who says, “You need to eat – and this is what you need.” What we need is God’s very presence, Godself given to us in love. Why would we put a limit on that?
I was thinking about this sermon as I reflected on the horrific news out of Orlando – news that was beginning to unfold as we gathered last Sunday. The question reverberates, “Why?” It is so tempting to have answers – answers that barely touch on true messiness of the human condition. We can speak of hatred – that may include self-hatred. We can speak of international conflicts. We can speak of gun control in our own nation. None of the quick and easy and divisive answers put forward really touches that deep lament that shouts, “Why, O God? Why?”
“The Lord Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed, took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” On the night he was betrayed, he offered this meal – nourishment for those who would struggle to make sense of what was going to happen.
We partake of this meal because God wants to draw close to us – and this meal is God’s gift in that through it God reaches out to us, to feed us with God’s very presence and love.
I am learning to be a child of the sacrament – a child waiting to be fed. I am learning that to worship God means being willing to offer my whole self – and recognize that the ways of God cannot always be easily understood. I am learning that there is a powerful witness in our coming together to break the bread – sharing the grace that has brought us together in this place. The willingness to share the bread is a powerful witness in this world that focuses too often on divisions.
This table is not ours. It is the Lord’s table. And we are invited to come and be his guests.
1 Kings 21:1-21a
Professor Glaucia Vasconcelos Wilkey describes this morning’s story as an “opera” text. I don’t think any composers or librettists have chosen to set this story to music, but it does have that high drama that we would expect in the best of operas or musical theater.
We have familiar characters in this story: King Ahab, Queen Jezebel, and Elijah. The newest character is Naboth.
Naboth had a vineyard by Ahab’s palace in Jezreel. The palace in Jezreel was not the primary palace. It was a second home. But Ahab coveted the property next door. He wanted it so that he could have a vegetable garden. He offered a trade which Naboth rejected
In our modern eyes, it might seem that Naboth turned down a good deal. There was a small church in Pennsylvanian that had property where Home Depot wanted to build. Home Depot made an offer. The presbytery lawyer said to the church, “You’re under no obligation to accept it. You really are in the driver’s seat!” Well, this little church ended up working out a wonderful deal. Home Depot paid to move – physically move – the old church building to a new piece of land. They excavated a wonderful basement and provided a full kitchen. The newly moved church had air conditioning installed and a completely paved parking lot. Furthermore, they were out of the flood zone! The lawyer pointed out that all this expense was a mere drop in the bucket for the large corporation that needed that particular piece of land in order to move forward.
Naboth mght have made a deal with Ahab. Except that he had a very different understanding of the land. The land, itself, was seen as a sign of God’s grace. The land was God’s gift to the nation and to families, clans. Naboth responds to Ahab’s request saying, “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” (I wonder if the translation is a little misleading. Maybe he said, “The Lord forbids that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.”) It was breaking a covenant with God to give up one’s land. In the story of the Prodigal Son, one of the son’s sins is liquidating the land that was part of his ancestral inheritance. Naboth’s words should remind the king of God’s intent. Yet, the king is focused only on his own desire – to have the vineyard for a garden. The Rev. Marsha Wilfong says that the desire to have a garden is an offense against God.
Naboth’s refusal to shirk his God-given responsibility of caring for the vineyard set in motion the terrible events that followed. Jezebel entered the story. As one resource pointed out, the name Jezebel has become synonymous with evil. The Biblical story certainly does not paint her in a good light. However, it is equally harsh in its treatment of Ahab. In that patriarchal society, Ahab was ultimately responsible. Ahab should have been faithful to the relationship with God that undergirded the nation, respecting the traditions and laws which shaped the people. Ahab was supposed to remember that he was, first and foremost, a king with a limited power, limited by an awareness that God was the ultimate power.
But, he listened to Jezebel who brought her own traditions. He allowed her ways to have more weight than God’s ways.
So, the opera plot continues. Jezebel had Naboth falsely accused of cursing God and the king. That accusation led to his death. The power entrusted to Ahab as king, power entrusted by God, was abused and an innocent man was killed. (Some scholars point out that his sons would have been killed as well so that the vineyard was available.) We might think of the story of David who arranged the death of Uriah the Hittite so that he might have Bathsheba as his wife. And, we might think of all those who abuse positions of power to serve their own ends and their own desires.
It is not an ancient story. We hear about those who blow the whistle on misconduct and lose their jobs. It reminded me of our own experience when Mark transferred to Florida and found that he could do nothing right in the eyes of his boss. Finally, he was called in one morning and fired. One of the reasons given was not Mark’s fault or responsibility. Someone else had made a mistake. But, there was no arguing. His job was gone. It was only later that Mark found out that the Florida boss resented having someone come from corporate headquarters. He thought Mark was a spy (even though he wasn’t). It was inevitable that Mark would lose his job. He was set up for failure. You hear such stories again and again. Power and position are abused.
I heard it suggested that we see what it means to break the commandments in story form. Ahab covets Naboth’s vineyard. “You shall not covet” is one of the commandments. Jezebel arranges for unfounded accusations to be made against Naboth. “You shall not bear false witness.” Naboth is stoned. “You shall not commit murder.” Those are the commandments that are directed toward living with one another. We might add, further, that these commandments were broken because Ahab did not worship God alone. He worshiped his own power and his own desires.
Elijah was sent to confront Ahab, to accuse him of breaking the commandments. And Elijah’s message was harsh. “Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.”
Yet, there is no quick justice. Ahab was given a reprieve because when Elijah confronted him, he repented. And, we’re not told what might have happened to Naboth’s widow and daughters (those who would have had no rights to the property and who lost all their means of support.) We’re left with a messy story that doesn’t have easy answers.
The story invites lament – a cry to God for justice, for hope, for redemption. Wilkey quotes Psalm 5. “O Lord, listen to the sound of my cry…In the morning I plead my case to you and watch. For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil will not sojourn with you.” The Rev. Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” God’s justice may not be the instantaneous answer we want. Perhaps, because God is willing us to participate in bringing that justice about. Elijah was sent to speak to corrupt power. Nathan the prophet confronted King David, naming David’s transgression.
Earlier, I said that Marsha Wilfong suggested that the desire to have a garden was an offense to God. That may be because Israel is at times called “God’s vineyard.” That imagery is present in the Old Testament. And, think of the ways it is present in the New Testament. “I am the vine; you are the branches,” Jesus said to his disciples. He used the image of the vineyard in a parable. Wilkey says, “God’s people are God’s vineyard, and even when such vineyard has been stomped,, burned, robbed, and the night of despair seems long and unending, grace conquers evil power, and joy comes in the morning.” “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Wilfong says that this is a cautionary tale. It reminds us that oppression exists, that power gets misused in ways that abuse human beings – individuals and groups. We find ourselves, at times, victims. Sometimes we find the fortitude to speak as Elijah did, to confront the systems and the people who have turned their backs on what is just in order to further their own ends, to insure their position, privilege and power.
We may know what it is to be victims. We also, as the church, have to examine ourselves and ask when we have been like Ahab – willing to look for the easy answers and thereby complicit in systems and actions that victimize others. To touch on, briefly, the gospel lesson for today, Jesus, like Elijah, spoke words of challenge. Here, he did not address a king – but he did address someone of faith. “Do you see this woman,” Jesus asked Simon the Pharisee. His approach to faith had reduced her to a sinner. He didn’t see the person. He saw only the sin. So, Simon’s relationship with the woman was non-existent, because he had no concern for her. We don’t know anything about her except that Jesus saw her and valued her. He challenged Simon to do the same.
I hear, frequently, people speak about the church’s diminished power in our world. Perhaps that it is God’s gift to us – to drive us to the edges again – so that we might remember that we are to speak truth to power and that we are to see those who are nameless, faceless, and powerless in our world. The church is as in danger of abusing power as kings and, in our world, nations, corporations, elected officials, and those who abuse spouses or children or strangers. We are to have courageous voices – like the voice of the rape victim in California – that name the injustices that are a part of our world. We are to stand with and for those who have no voice, no power – and, perhaps, no hope. We are to reassure them that God recognizes their pain and the injustice – and proclaim the good news that the moral arc may be long, but it bends toward God’s good intent for this world, for all the inhabitants of God’s vineyard.
I Kings 17:8-24
Last Sunday we started the lectionary journey of hearing some of the stories of the prophet Elijah. Today’s story actually precedes last Sunday’s. I’m not sure exactly why the lectionary crafters decided to put the two stories in reverse order. It may be on account of the gospel lesson, since it, too, tells of the raising of the son of a widow.
Remember, Elijah had declared God’s anger at the practices that King Ahab had allowed, particularly the acceptance and promotion of the worship of Baal. God’s anger was manifest in the severe drought that came upon the land. Because of the drought, God told Elijah to go to the wilderness and live by the wadi where he was fed by the ravens. “The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the wadi.” Yet, not even the wadi to which God had sent him survived the drought. So, God sent him to Zarephath, telling him that there was a widow there who would provide for him.
Now, imagine Elijah’s surprise – and, perhaps doubt of God’s plan – when he met the widow, gathering sticks so that she could prepare the last of her meager supplies for herself and her son – and then wait to die. The wadi had dried up. Now, he was sent to a woman on the verge of death. Imagine, as well, her sense of despair. She was facing death – she and her son. And this foreign, strange man came in from the wilderness and demanded hospitality.
We’re accustomed to the idea of hospitality as something we offer out of our abundance. Middle Eastern hospitality is different. It was in Elijah’s day, in Jesus’ day – and in many places, in our own day. Hospitality was not an option. She couldn’t turn away from him and ignore a request – that wasn’t much different from begging! Yet, how unfair it must have seemed! She had lived on the edges of society since her husband died. Her only hope for a future had been through her son who would have had a right to her husband’s property. Now, however, the drought had taken what little she had.
Scholars note that both this woman and the woman in the gospel lesson for today remain unnamed. They had little status. They had no power. Society had been charged with their welfare – but society often failed in its responsibility to care for widows and orphans. Society often failed in its responsibility to be aware of the most vulnerable.
Elijah might have hoped that God would send him to someone of means. But, perhaps it was the most vulnerable who was able, ultimately, to welcome this strange, wild man. She understood desperation.
Professor Carolyn Sharp notes that many cultures have stories about wild men that don’t fit easily into their culture. In the Bible there are several wild men: Elijah, Samson, and John the Baptist are three. We might think of those characters in our own popular media that don’t fit our molds. As I was reading Sharp’s reflections, I thought of Tarzan. (I turned the page, and she wrote of Tarzan!) When my daughter was young, ET was one of her favorite movies. She watched it over and over again. In that story, the adults are threatened by the idea of an “out of this world,” “out of our culture” being. So, our modern Tarzans are probably aliens! And, for many, the aliens are not necessarily extra-terrestrial. They are merely those who are different – those who speak a different language, have a different skin color, have a different sexual orientation, believe in God differently. There are many aliens in our world – that threaten our carefully constructed and orderly lives.
Elijah demanded hospitality. He demanded water and food. I have to admit, this story, if I look at it from the woman’s point of view, touches all my feminist buttons! Why should she respond to his demands? What right does he have to demand anything of this stranger? Of course, I’m putting my 21st century bias into the reading and hearing of this story. He had every right. Hospitality was a sacred responsibility in that culture. Now, on the other hand, asking for hospitality from a woman facing death seems harsh and unrealistic.
I wondered how often we view ourselves as the widow on the verge of death – gathering a few sticks and waiting for our demise. I think that sense is especially prevalent in struggling churches – of many sizes, but particularly smaller congregations that have known a more vibrant past. Some churches choose to die. I met the pastor of one who said, “We’ve agreed. Last one out, turns off the lights!” Some churches die unwillingly, refusing to see that they are starving.
As individuals in a society that focuses on abundance, it’s hard to think about being asked for hospitality when we feel vulnerable. Hospitality is portrayed as something glamorous, sleek, shiny – happening in houses that could grace the pages of magazines. I had a friend, years ago, who would not host the church’s women’s group because she didn’t think her house would be considered adequate. She forgot that the group valued her and that they weren’t looking for glamour – just for genuine hospitality.
Elijah came, the wild man, and asked something of this vulnerable woman. God was confident that she could provide what was needed. (Remember, God had said to Elijah that God had commanded this woman to provide hospitality. Apparently, that command was not direct. She had no knowledge of it. Elijah, truly, spoke God’s word to her.) And when she welcomed Elijah into her home, God helped her provide.
Carolyn Sharp says, “Those who dare to host the wild divine word in their midst are saved from disaster.” “Those who dare to host the wild divine word in their midst are saved from disaster.”
What a fascinating phrase – the wild divine. I was reminded of the C.S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia. The God character is a lion named Aslan. This lion tells the children who have been transported to Narnia that he is good – but he is not a tame lion. Aslan is the wild divine.
We want a world that makes good sense. In this morning’s story, the widow responded to Elijah’s demands for hospitality. At first, it seemed she was saved from disaster. The jar of meal was not emptied. The jug of oil did not fail. Then, her son died. She had done what society demanded. She had offered hospitality. Yet, calamity still came.
A professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts says that we assume that the world is ultimately benevolent and meaningful. Some people speak of it as karma. Good brings good and bad brings bad. Professor Jan Holton says that even if we declare that we know that life is not always fair, it is tempting to live with this assumption of a benevolent world, a world that is fully fair in its rewards and judgments. In fact, we often teach that in the church. “If you’re good, God will reward you. If you’re bad, God will punish you.” What happens, then, when tragedy strikes? What happens when there’s no good answer to the question, “Why?”
We want a tame world. We want a tame God who fits into our assumptions and expectations. With a tamed world, it becomes easier to dismiss the messiness that is evident in the lives of those who are faceless and nameless. We hear that dismissive attitude! Think of the ways the suffering are blamed for their lot.
There is a Presbyterian catchphrase, “decently and in order.” It truly can be a way of silencing the Wild Divine when decently and in order means living within a tradition and structures in ways that never change. Sometimes the phrase is used to silence those who might see things differently, to silence those who might want to challenge the way things are. The intent of the phrase is different. Its intent is to allow discussion that welcomes the Wild Divine Word. I heard a woman speak of her father, a Presbyterian Minister, who was elected to go to the General Assembly in 1956. That assembly would be voting on whether women could be ordained as ministers. He was adamant. Women should not be ministers. The Assembly, however, as a body, voted to allow women ministers. He came home and said, “I didn’t believe women should be ministers. Apparently, the Holy Spirit believed otherwise.” He became a supporter. A reasoned discussion, done decently and in order, allowed the Wild Divine Word to stir up the denomination, to challenge and alter its structures and beliefs.
The Wild Divine shakes up who we are. It challenges the systems and we create for ourselves and calls us to service in God’s world. I was listening to a newscast that was looking back at Muhammed Ali’s life. Someone wondered how it was that someone who was vilified because of his faith and his unwillingness to serve during the Vietnam War could become a respected and beloved public figure. Someone else responded, “He raised our consciousness about the flaws in our society. It was difficult to hear. But as time went on, people began to see the truth in his words and respect that truth.” He was, in some ways, the wild man – a gentle giant of a wild man.
Recently, I heard someone speak about a different approach to church, an approach that does not see church as the place we come to escape or to encounter a predictable, unchallenging God. “We should be handing out hard hats,” the speaker said, citing someone else’s words. I read something similar years ago in a reflection on baptism. We come together not to tame God, but to encounter the Wild Divine – the God whom the Bible describes as being like wind or like flame – with power to upend and power to consume and purify.
And this Wild Divine tells us that if we respond we will have what we need to be involved in God’s work and mission in the world. Even a widow facing death found that she had the resources to serve God in the wild man. And when her son died, she saw, Sharp says, “God’s compassion to those who dare to host the prophetic word.”
Sharp concludes, “When we dare to host the prophetic word, we are transformed. For we encounter a God who delivers the powerless, a God whose word yields inexhaustible abundance, a God whose compassion is stronger than death. Elijah’s prophetic word points to the One who is the way the truth, and the life. Host that word, know the truth, and live.”
I Kings 18:20-39
The lectionary cycle for this year presents us with great Old Testament (Hebrew Scripture) stories. And they are stories. They remind us that, although we might speak of God’s law and that God’s law is in some places codified, much of the Biblical witness is not a law book, nor a code of conduct manual.
We have stories. Perhaps it’s no wonder that Jesus taught through parables. He was raised on and in the stories of faith.
Why stories rather than a simple law book? I think the stories have the power to get under our skin rather than remaining an external guide. They connect with us in ways that can teach us something about who we are. (I’ve been reading a book in which one of the main characters, one that I had liked, made some very poor choices. I got so mad at him, I had to quit reading!) I read somewhere that naming our favorite fictional characters tells us something about who we are—and our values. Who are your favorites? Have they changed through the years? What glimpses might they give you about your core values?
So today we’re going to begin hearing stories that come from the time of the great prophet, Elijah.
It might seem that we have little in common with the situation in today’s story. At first hearing it is thoroughly archaic. But, I think we can be a little creative and even have some fun as we think about it. So, we’re going to hear this story as if it were a modern day sports broadcast. Mark is going to be the play announcer and I’m going to provide the color commentary.
Mark: Welcome to our broadcast of the competition between Baal and YHWH. This competition was initiated by Elijah – one of YHWH’s prophets. He challenged the prophets of Baal to come to this mountain and prove, once and for all, which God is more powerful.
Micki: There’s some background that we need. YHWH is the ancient God of the Israelites. King Ahab, however, married Jezebel, a Phoenician princess. When Jezebel came to Israel she brought with her a devotion to her faith – a faith that proclaimed the god Baal. Elijah insists that the modern worship of Baal is offensive to YHWH. In fact, Elijah claims that the drought we’re experiencing is a sign of God’s displeasure. Actually, Elijah went so far as to claim that he caused the drought by proclaiming YHWH’s displeasure.
Mark: Yeah. Sure. Well, anyway, team Baal is entering the arena now. Boy, they look strong. There are 450 prophets! What a spectacle!
Micki: A little more background. Baal is the chief god of the Phoenicians. In fact (and I admit this is a little ironic considering the drought), Baal is known as the God of the storm and is represented by lightning. (Reveal shirt) I guess I’m going to show my bias here. I don’t think the prophets of YHWH have a chance against Baal – the god of a powerful, developed, respected nation. Go Baal!
Mark: I don’t think you have to worry about showing your support! After all, worship of YHWH has been dying out. This will probably be that God’s last stand. Well…here comes team YHWH. And, look,…are my eyes deceiving me? No. Well, if you want further proof that worship of YHWH is dying out, it’s right in front of us. 450 prophets for Baal. One ---yes you heard me – one for YHWH!
Alright, it looks like things are going to get started. Elijah, YHWH’s prophet, seems to be going first. I must say, he has nerve! He’s challenging the people, accusing them of trying to serve Baal and YHWH. It seems he’s going to set the ground rules.
Micki: It looks like he’s going to suggest a burnt offering – something familiar to the people. But – wow this takes nerve—he says that they should call on their god to set fire to the offering!
Mark: Here they go. They’ve taken a bull, prepared it, and set it on the wood. Now they’re crying out to Baal. “O Baal, answer us!” Let’s see what happens!
Nothing happened. They’re walking around the altar, but there’s no fire. OK. I think I hear Elijah.
Oh. There’s some trash talking down there now! Elijah has nerve, I’ll say that! “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating or has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” Harsh words.
Micki: Harsher than we might think! Actually, I’ve been told that when Elijah says he has wandered away he really means he’s responding to nature’s call. Not something you’d expect of a god!
Mark: Well, he’s riled those prophets up! Now they’re crying aloud and cutting themselves. It’s a bloody spectacle – self-inflicted! And yet Baal seems to be silent.
Now, Elijah’s ready to take his turn. He’s rebuilt the altar (which the prophets of Baal destroyed in all their antics.) He’s put twelve stones as the base.
Micki: That’s a reminder of their history with YHWH. The twelve stones stand for the twelve tribes of Israel.
Mark: Now he’s putting a trench around the altar. I wonder what that’s for. Anyway, he’s put the wood and the bull on the altar. I wonder what approach he’ll take. Will he march around it like the prophets of Baal? Will he cry aloud and cut himself?
Wait! Wait! I can’t believe it! He’s having the people pour water on the whole thing! He’s soaking it! They’ve poured so much water, the trench is filled. Good luck getting that soggy mess to burn!
Micki: (Laughing) Well, if it does, I’ll be impressed!
Mark: OK. He’s starting his prayer. “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done these things at your bidding. Answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.”
Nice prayer….Oh wow! I can’t believe it! That soggy mess is burning! It has burned up the bull, the wood, even the stones and the dust. The water is gone.
(Moment of silence)
I guess I don’t know what to say.
Micki: Me either. This isn’t going to sit well with the King and Queen. One insignificant prophet has managed to challenge their power base. If Baal even exists, it looks like YHWH is the more powerful God!
Mark: You said it! Amen. (End of storytelling portion)
Although we took that story and gave it a somewhat modern setting, I think it was designed, in its recalling and its telling, to have a humorous sense of drama. It invites us to ponder what we think matters. I’ve heard tell that there are places in this country where the primary religion is not Christianity, or Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, or even Islam. The primary religion is football. (NE Pennsylvania is one such place.) Yet, even the best team will disappoint --- and there’s really not much we can do about that! (I pick on Mark when he yells at baseball umpires or players during broadcast Yankee games!)
The Israelites had taken a pragmatic approach to their faith. They sort of hedged their bets (so Elijah accused them of fence sitting.) They still acknowledged YHWH, but they also accepted the faith that Jezebel brought – because it was connected to perceived power.
What Baals exist in our lives? What gets our attention? We might speak about the unreal expectations we have as we prepare to elect a president. We ask the candidates to speak as if they had the power to solve every ill. Is it any wonder that, ultimately, they then disappoint us? Maybe we place such demands on them because we also expect a human society to have the power to make our lives complete in every way.
We could talk about jobs, and hobbies, and families – all good things that can become so consuming in our lives, so demanding of our attention and our loyalty, that God’s call in and on our lives is diminished.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians speaks to the problem in the church itself when the good news of God gets confused by adding in traditions and expectations that are more human in origin than Godly. He wrote in frustration because the Galatians were accepting an interpretation of the good news that conflicted with the message of grace that he had proclaimed. He would not accept a hybrid approach to faith that diluted the message he had proclaimed. He would not accept the pragmatic approach that incorporated past practices as essential to a new gospel. Even within the church, we muddy God’s good news with traditions and practices which we elevate to almost god-like status. They become the focus of our energies – sometimes our monies – and even our worship. There was a small church in northern New York that decided to dissolve. They asked the presbytery to sell the property to the local historical society—for one dollar. And the presbytery did. Soon after, we discovered that the historical society was the congregation. They continued to gather – and to worship as they (and their parents) had worshiped in the past. They sang the old hymns. They gave their money to maintain the building. No longer was there any connection to mission and ministry beyond themselves. Their traditions had become Baal – and God was displaced – even forgotten.
That ancient story occurs again and again – all around us and within our own lives. It seems, at times, that God is silent, absent, even powerless. Yet, God calls us back, through Elijahs and Pauls and persistent voices that proclaim the good news of God’s living, loving presence. Amen.