Sunday, November 25, 2012

Written on the Heart: A Sermon on Jeremiah 36 and 31

Scripture can be found here...

I can’t remember when it was that I first became aware of the “problem” with kings. Like many children I grew up immersed in fairy tales, with their stories of kings and queens and princes and princesses. As a college student I eagerly watched the TV and print coverage of the royal wedding between Diana, the princess who was exactly my age, and the man who will be king Prince Charles. And, like many women my age, I actually wept years later when her fairy tale had turned into a nightmare that ended with her untimely death.

Did I first become aware of the problem with kings then?

Or was it years before, when I was studying my U. S. History, in elementary school and high school, and learned about George III, who unfairly taxed the colonies right into revolution and the birth of a new nation? Or, was it when I learned about the various other kings throughout history whose peccadilloes and/ or crimes and/ or poor decision-making cast serious doubts on the whole concept of “divine right”?

I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point I definitely learned that some kings are examples of inspiring leadership: Shakespeare’s Henry V comes to mind, as does the real-life George VI, who saw Great Britain through World War II. But the institution itself, at a human level, tends to be deeply flawed and problematic.

That’s pretty much what God said it would be like. Back in 1 Samuel, when representatives of the twelve tribes said to the prophet , “Give us a king to govern us.” God responded:

These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.

~1 Samuel 8:1-18

As God was paraphrased in an earlier sermon, “here’s what human kings are good for: forced labor, taxes, harems, armies, war.”[i] A word that is repeated again and again in this passage is “take.” A king is very good at “taking.”

And by this point in the biblical story, we have met many kings. We have met faithful but also deeply flawed kings like David and his son Solomon. We have met flawed and deeply unfaithful kings like Ahab, and now, Jehoiakim. If there’s anything the institution of hereditary monarchy in the bible teaches us, it’s that the character of the parent and the character of the child can be radically different. Jehoiakim is the son of one of the southern kingdom’s great heroes, the faithful reformer King Josiah. Jehoiakim couldn’t be more different. His faithlessness is exceeded only by his arrogance.

When we meet him, the year is about 605 BCE, the Southern kingdom is in much the same state Isaiah described last week: a sinful nation, unfaithful, chasing after other gods and not only ignoring the welfare of the people, but crushing them. This is while the great empire Babylon is consolidating its power, and King Jehoiakim is paying the Babylonians tribute as a precautionary measure, trying to stay on their good side. “At this crucial junction, God is giving Judah one more chance to repent.”[ii] This is where the prophet comes in.

Jeremiah is a towering figure of the Hebrew Scriptures, called when still a young boy and having a long career as a gadfly to the powerful. His prophetic ministry lasts almost 40 years, through five separate kings and into the time of the Babylonian captivity and exile. One article on Jeremiah lists several of the tribulations to which he is subjected as a result of his intense, unflagging ministry:

Jeremiah was attacked by his own brothers [12:6], beaten and put into the stocks by a priest… [20:1-4], imprisoned by a king [37:18, 38:28], threatened with death [38:4], thrown into a cistern… [38:6], and opposed by a false prophet [Ch. 28].[iii]

God’s word comes to Jeremiah continually throughout that time period, and it is a word beseeching all—king, commoners, priests, prophets alike—to repent, turn around, and be faithful to God once again. At this very moment, when Babylon is becoming more and more of a threat, God prods Jeremiah yet again, and he dutifully dictates God’s words to his scribe, who writes them all down on scrolls and reads them aloud in the temple, where, suffice to say, Jeremiah is a persona non grata.

Jehoiakim, is in his winter apartment, and that little detail evokes so much of what is wrong with this king. He is cozy and warm while others are freezing. He is insulated, inside before a toasty fire, while others are exposed, both to the dangers without and to the warning word of God as it is being read in the temple. But he must know that gadfly Jeremiah is at it again, because he calls for the scroll to be read aloud to him. His response to what he hears is utterly shocking: “As [his servant] read three or four columns, the king would cut them off with a penknife and throw them into the fire in the brazier, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire…” [Jeremiah 36:23]. The king of Judah, the southern kingdom founded upon the covenant promise of God, treats the words from God as fuel for the fire to warm his winter apartment, and no more. God’s words of warning are falling on deaf ears.

Jeremiah is undeterred. He calls his scribe and instructs him to write another scroll, with all the same words on it that have been burned by the king of Judah.

There are a number of problems with the institution of the monarchy, as we see it unfolding in the story of scripture. But let’s just focus on this one: If the people regard the king as a kind of stand-in for God on earth, and the king does NOT regard faithfulness to God as the first priority… a chasm opens up between God and the people.  It doesn’t always have to be that way. King Josiah, made spreading God’s word among the people his life’s work. But his son’s casual use of the sacred scroll as kindling to warm his toes tells us all about his priorities. This king will not lead his people back to God.

At this point in our reading, we go back… we go back to the words of chapter 31, because the message of God through Jeremiah is the same after the king’s arrogant gesture as it was before. God offers the people a complete do-over. God, who, as ever, is kind and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing, offers a new covenant.

… [T]his is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the Lord," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. ~Jeremiah 31:33-34

It is God’s plan to bypass the king entirely. No longer content to let the king—or any king—be the determining factor in God’s relationship with the people, God is prepared to close the chasm in the most dramatic and direct way.  Rather than having a law that exists only on a scroll or in the words of a prophet, God makes each person a kind of living scroll. Rather than charging a king or an order of priests to enforce God’s law, God will place the law directly into every human heart. Rather than having the law written on parchment, it will be written on the heart.

And so we have, in starkest terms, the contrast between an earthly king and God as king. The earthly king is the king who takes and takes and takes—taking sons and daughters for armies and harems, taking taxes and wealth to pay his expenses and butter up his nobles, taking the people’s very lives for his forced labor and military campaigns. God as king gives and gives and gives—giving second chances, and third, and more in endless number; giving the law to be planted in the hungry soil of every heart; giving the intimate knowledge of real relationship: “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”

I suppose the question is as crucial for us as it was for this king and his subjects of two-and-a-half millennia ago: What will we do with the word of God? What will we do with God’s call—which starts to sound less and less like the command of a king and more and more like the wooing of a lover? What will we do? In the words of our prayer of confession, will we yield ourselves to God’s transforming grace? In the words of the prophet, will we allow the law of God—which is love—to be written on our hearts? And if we can’t, or won’t, or find ourselves saying “Not now, later,” will we, can we trust that the offer remains open? That our God is a God of kindness and mercy, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love? For the continued, gracious invitation, all thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Rolf Jacobson, Podcast: “Narrative Lectionary 051, Solomon,” October 21, 2012.
[ii] J. Clinton McCann, “Narrative Lectionary 055, Jeremiah,” November 18, 2012.
[iii] “Jeremiah,” Wikipedia (

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Grateful Response: Sermon on Isaiah 6:1-8

Scripture passage can be found here...

It is the year 738 BCE. The place is Jerusalem, the capitol of the southern kingdom, Judah, the Temple Mount, often called “Zion” in the psalms. You are Isaiah, son of Amoz: probably you are the son of a priestly family, someone with a reason to go into the temple, at any rate. Uzziah, the king of Judah, has just died. And as you look around you, as you look at the kingdom, and its people, and the ins and outs of its wanton ways, all seems lost. You describe what you see in angry, bitter terms. You say,

“Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord, who have despised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged! Why do you seek further beatings? Why do you continue to rebel? The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but bruises and sores and bleeding wounds; they have not been drained, or bound up, or softened with oil. Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence aliens devour your land; it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners. And daughter Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard, like a shelter in a cucumber field, like a besieged city” [Isaiah 1:4-8].

And then, you enter the temple.

This first temple, the one built by Solomon, is not large by 21st century standards. At 180 feet in length, it is dwarfed by the likes of the Crystal Cathedral (at 415 feet), or Saint John the Divine (at 600 feet).  But the exterior of the temple is imposing and majestic from its vast quantities of beautiful stone, and the interior of the temple into which you walk is fragrant with the scent of fine wood, cypress and cedar. And in the innermost part of the temple, the sanctuary that contains the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant, you walk into a fiery glow that comes from the walls being covered with an inlay of pure gold.

It is here that our passage begins. With the terrible destruction you see all around outside, you, Isaiah walk into a space that is filled with, not only the beauty of craftsmanship and costly materials, but with the true presence of God on earth.

“I saw the Lord sitting on a throne,” you would later say, “high and lofty. And the hem of his robe filled the temple” [Isaiah 6:1b]. No one can literally “see” God, scripture is careful to tell us. But what you see is the very tail end of God’s glory, God’s hem, this tiny fragment of something too enormously holy and gorgeous for the likes of a human being to really apprehend.

You try to describe the angels. “Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.” Seraphim us a Hebrew word meaning “fire.” You see beings that are made of fire, yet they are also made of wings, and the oldest representations of them show us, they are made of eyes—they are covered with eyes, every winged fiery inch of them. They are monstrous. They are holy.

And the fiery winged eye-covered monsters are crying out to one another, “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, Yahweh Tzabaoth.” “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” This does not sound remotely like our hymn this morning. This is a cry of distress. Even to these fiery winged beings, God’s holiness is distressing, it is too much, God is way too holy. To be “holy” in the Old Testament means to be other, completely foreign and incomprehensible and unreachable. They are horrified. They are in awe. They cannot stop singing it, in strange tones that hurt the ears as much as the vision hurts the eyes. The temple is shaking with the noise. It is filled with smoke.

You, Isaiah, react in a way that makes sense. “Woe is me!” No. No. No. “I am lost.” The Hebrew word really means, not lost, but “stilled.” Made silent. I am silenced “…for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips…”  Yet, I have seen you. I have seen the Lord. [Isaiah 6:5].

Well, you can “see the Lord” in scripture, as it turns out. However, most often, this experience leads to death (for example, Exodus 33:20).

OK. You are not Isaiah any longer. You are… yourselves. And I won’t ask you, I’ll ask myself: when is the last time I had an experience of God that was not simply… comfortable? And reassuring? And kind of normal and maybe even a little boring?

Annie Dillard, in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, writes:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.[i]

We have tried our best to tame God, to domesticate God. And I think I understand a little of how that happened. I think there was a time—the phrase “sinners in the hands of an angry God” comes to mind—in which the focus of the church was so strongly on God’s wrath, God’s power to smite, God’s absolute intolerance of sin, that we forgot almost entirely the truth about God’s character: in the words of the star of last week’s sermon, cranky northern kingdom prophet Jonah: “You are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” [Jonah 4:2b]. And over time, as the church refocused its message on that essential truth about God’s nature, we did that oh so human thing wherein the baby and the bathwater go together down the drain.

Except, they don’t. They never can.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil[ii]

Ask someone who’s stood at the lip of the Grand Canyon. Ask someone who’s been out to sea, or in the middle of a Great Lake when a squall comes up. Ask someone who’s held a newborn infant in his or her arms. Ask someone who’s stood in awestruck wonder at the beauty of a sunset, or the sight of a tree turning itself into a pillar of flame, or the crystalline silence of an early morning snow that is as yet undisturbed by human intervention.

Ask someone who’s known himself to be utterly unworthy, a sinner to the bone, but who nevertheless understands himself to be forgiven. Ask Isaiah, whose lips forever after burn with both the memory of the glowing coal and his commission to action. Ask Isaiah, who, in the end, understands that God has said to him, in essence, “Things are hopeless out there, But you are my hope.”

You are my hope. When all the world is every bit as dark as Isaiah experiences it, God says to a flawed human being, “You are my hope.” And the first five chapters of Isaiah tell us how very dark the days are. They tell us of worship that has grown meaningless to God, because it is not made authentic by hearts that are moved with compassion. They tell us of kings who care only for power, and people who care only for wealth. They tell us of people who are abiding injustice, oppressing the powerless, ignoring the orphans and the widows right at their doorsteps.

And yet God sends Isaiah out into all of it. God commissions him, a flawed but forgiven man, and Isaiah’s answer is a firm “Here I am; send me.”

As creations of God, beautiful and flawed, we forget. We forget the grandeur of God, the mountains and the oceans and the storms and the stillness that all arose from the very breath of God. We forget how fearsome and terrifying the power of God is. And we forget, too, the essential nature of God as kind and merciful, slow to anger and overflowing with rock-steady love. We forget it all.

Gratitude begins with remembering.

There is something about Isaiah’s response that speaks of a grateful heart. A heart that has remembered, been confronted with the truth about God and the truth about himself, and who has lived to tell the tale. Maybe he’s just grateful he survived. That is entirely possible. But he has also experienced that burning coal, and in so doing, has experienced something else, too. The God who is holy, holy, way too holy—other, foreign, unreachable, unapproachable—has for some reason chosen to bridge the gap. God who is wholly mysterious has chosen, by virtue of that purging touch, to connect with Isaiah, to say, You are a part of my equation. And I can only see Isaiah’s response as the response of one who suddenly knows that he matters, that he can make a difference. Even to God. Even for God.

We are so great at taking days of remembrance and turning them into something else entirely. But one day we seem to have figured out and that we seem to be able to carry on with some connection to its original intent is Thanksgiving. We gather around a table with loved ones—friends, family, friends who have become family—and we know the purpose of the gathering is to acknowledge that we are blessed. The purpose of the gathering is to remember. Gratitude begins with remembering.

You are not Isaiah, but you. And you remember. You remember the God who created the Finger Lakes and the grapes that grow along their banks, who created the thousand shades of green that cover our hills and valleys, and the clouds and the endless varieties of beautiful configurations with which they cover our skies. You remember the God who designed both the patterns of frost you saw on your car this morning and the opposable thumb, and who placed you in the body you now inhabit, and surrounded you with loved ones or with the ceaseless longing for genuine connection.   You remember that God looks at you, and looks at the beautiful and broken world all around you, and says, “You are my hope.”

And because you remember, you can be grateful. And because you are grateful, you can say to God, “Here I am. Send me.” All praise and thanks be to God. A

[i] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1982).
[ii] Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur,” in Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose (Penguin Classics, 1985).

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Troubles of the Prophet: Sermon on Jonah

Scripture can be found here.... be sure to click through to each chapter! We read the whole thing.

This week I read these words: “The book of Jonah is simultaneously pathetic and hilarious.” (J. Clinton McCann, Narrative Lectionary Commentary on Jonah at

And that is so true. Looked at one way, this book really does tell us about all the troubles of the prophet, from his causing a storm that made his shipmates throw him overboard, to his being inside the belly of a great fish calling out pathetically to God, to his being under a hot sun with nothing to shade him.

Looked at another way, of course, this is a book about a backwards prophet—one who goes left when God tells him to go right, one who spouts bad poetry inside a fish before the fish spews him out onto a beach, and one who pouts over his own success at being a prophet like some kind of kid who really, really wanted that piece of candy before dinner. Kind of hilarious.

But before we get to Jonah in all his quirkiness, we need to understand exactly where he’s coming from. Where he’s coming from, is exile.

Last week we were with the northern kingdom under Ahab, as being challenged by the prophet Elijah. This week we stay with the history of the northern kingdom—only that kingdom has been destroyed. Around the year 740 BCE, in the midst of a dispute between the northern and southern kingdoms, the king of Judah (in the south) asked for help from the king of Assyria. Assyria stepped in, and conquered all ten tribes of the northern kingdom, and carried their people away into exile.

Exile, along with creation and slavery, is one the pivotal events of the Old Testament. Not many of us know what it is to be exiles, to be taken away from our homes—often without warning—into another land. People from coastal New York and New Jersey know, many of them. One day they were in their homes, and the next they were elsewhere—with friends, or family, or more likely, in shelters, with no idea when they might return home or what they would find when they got there. That is a kind of exile.

This information casts a different light on the book of Jonah. Or, perhaps, it casts a shadow. At the outset of the story, God speaks to Jonah: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me” [Jonah 1:2]. Jonah is commissioned by God to carry a message to the people of Nineveh—the capital of Assyria. The message is one of warning, that God will destroy Nineveh for its wickedness.

Jonah speaks not a word, but his actions speak loudly. God says, Go east—that is, towards Nineveh. And instead, Jonah goes west—to Tarshish, “Away from the presence of the Lord.”

Interesting prophet, whose instinct is to flee from God. But God does have a way of getting our attention, and God gets Jonah’s attention of by hurling wind at the sea, causing the ship to come close to breaking up.

The mariners all cry to their gods for help, and they cast lots to figure out what the problem is. This would be kind of like asking a Ouija board to point to the person at fault. The lots point to Jonah, who pretty quickly owns up to the whole situation. He even tells them to throw him overboard. But the very decent mariners refuse, and just keep rowing. Eventually, with a prayer to God not to blame them for Jonah’s death, they pitch him into the sea like a crate of spoiled bananas. And a “great fish,” appointed by God to the task, promptly swallows him.

From the belly of the fish, Jonah prays. Jonah’s psalm sounds pretty good to us, to our English speaking ears. But you know that scene in “Sister Act,” in which Whoopi Goldberg is pretending to be a nun, and she’s asked to bless the meal? And she ends up praying a fabulous mishmash of the traditional Catholic grace, the 23rd Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Pledge of Allegiance? That’s what Jonah’s prayer sounds like to Hebrew-speaking ears. And, evidently, to God’s ears. It’s so bad, it even makes the big fish sick to his stomach. Finally, God gives the fish the go-ahead, and Jonah is spewed out, presumably onto some ancient Assyrian beach.

God speaks once again to Jonah, whom I imagine sitting there covered in krill and sand. “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you” [Jonah 3:2]. And let’s be clear: for God to send Jonah to Nineveh is on a par with sending a Jew to Berlin in 1939, or sending an African to Lynchburg, Virginia in 1850. But Jonah goes. He goes to Nineveh to proclaim God’s message. And it’s simple, and to the point: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” [Jonah 3:4b]

Now, I could imagine this being an incredibly satisfying message for a prophet to proclaim. Jonah is getting to tell the capital city of Assyria, the kingdom that is responsible for the misery and exile of his people, that they are sinners, that their wickedness has come up before the Lord like some kind of foul stench. And Jonah’s message is wildly successful! From the king to the tiniest child to the last member of every herd, they put on sackcloth to show that they are remorseful. And each and every person and animal fasts, as well, not a morsel of food or a sip of drink touching anyone’s mouth. This is how remorse is shown in the ancient world. In the 21st century, we might kneel and pray, and make amends by contacting those we’ve harmed. In the ancient world, people put on garments of rags, and cover themselves in ashes, and stop eating and drinking. And God sees their actions, hears their prayers, and God changes his mind. Again.

But Jonah is furious. This is not satisfying to Jonah. This does not give him joy, that the word of God has been passed successfully to the people of the land that took his people into exile, and they have won a reprieve. Jonah does not think, “Oh good! I’ve helped to save them!” Quite the opposite. Jonah says, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live” [Jonah 4:2b-3].

Jonah wants God to punish the Ninevites. Jonah wants them to suffer for the bad things they have done.  And for all the ways this story pokes fun at Jonah, I think we need to pause a moment, and recognize that Jonah’s sentiments are very, very human. And most of us don’t have to look any further than our own reactions to being harmed to understand where Jonah is coming from.

Think of a time when you were hurt, or your child was hurt, or someone else whom you love with a protective love. There is a young woman somewhere out there who hurt my daughter in the fifth grade, the thought of whom still raises my blood pressure. Think of a time your community was hurt, or your country—think of our collective response after September 11, or after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It was a rare person who, in the aftermath of attack, thought, “If only we could give our attackers an opportunity to repent, we would be so joyful to hear that they had a change of heart.” That didn’t happen. If it did, it didn’t happen much.

Jonah’s reaction is a very human reaction.

And it is not God’s reaction. This is the way God is described in scripture, over and over: gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, ready to forgive. Over and over. So… if you happen to hear people invoke a God who is eager to punish, to rain down fire and brimstone on any particular person, or any particular country, following any particular event… well, God is simply not likely to agree with that plan. Again, Saint Anne Lamott says it best: “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”[i]

The problem is, God loves everyone. God loves us. God created us in love, and re-creates us in love, and redeems and sustains us in love. And God loves the people we hate, too. God loves the people who have harmed us. Even though there are moments in scripture that seem to contradict this notion, there are far more that affirm it.

Thus, the troubles of the prophet Jonah, hilarious and pathetic as they—and he—may be. Jonah is hilarious and pathetic, and he is also a tremendously effective prophet. Everywhere he goes, God’s message is heard and people respond. God is able to use Jonah, despite his best efforts not to be used. God is able to save through Jonah, despite Jonah’s best efforts not to save.

We don’t know how Jonah’s story ends. This happens occasionally in scripture. Characters are introduced, and then slip away, without a satisfactory resolution to their story, without an “Amen!” to wrap things up. The last words we hear are the words of God, who says, very reasonably, “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” And that’s it. The end. We don’t know how Jonah will respond. We don’t know what chapter 5 will bring.

All we know is how we will respond to a gracious God, a merciful God, a God who is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. We might respond with relief. We might respond with joy. We might respond with anger. We might respond with resentment. We might find ourselves bathing in the cool and refreshing river of God’s love and mercy, or we might find ourselves sitting furiously under the sultry south wind of our own anger and self-righteousness.

And no matter how we respond, it will not lessen or change the essential character of God—towards our enemy, or towards us. We will never wear God out. We can still be assured of that grace, still be confident of that mercy, still count on that slowness to anger, and that abundant, steadfast love, and that eagerness not to have to punish. For us. For them. For us again. We will never wear God out. God will never change. Thanks be to God for that. Amen.

[i] Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1994), 22.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Abundance of God: Sermon on 1 Kings 17:1-16


Scripture can be found here...

In a week in which the story of our world was one of wind and rain and human suffering and destruction by storm, the story of scripture this morning is one of dryness and hunger and human suffering and destruction by drought.

A lot has happened with the kings… we go from David and Solomon and a united monarchy, to a divided kingdom. Sometime in the past nine chapters, the ten tribes of the north revolted against Solomon’s son, Rehoboam. So now, there is no longer one king over God’s people, but there are two, over the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. The narrative goes back and forth between the two kingdoms, and this week we are in the north, where the king is Ahab. Perhaps you are familiar with him? If not Ahab, perhaps you’ve heard of his wife: Jezebel.

According to archaeologists, Ahab was an incredibly successful king. The northern kingdom under his rule was strong, it was robust—it had large armies and thriving trade. Lots of land.

It also practiced child sacrifice.

This comes as a shock, until we remember that the first commandment is this: “I, the Lord, Yahweh your God, am God alone. You shall have no other gods beside me.” Ahab and Jezebel are not known today for the success of their economy or the strength of their military industrial complex. They are known as the worst sinners of the all the monarchs, for their willingness to abandon Yahweh and worship other gods. Ahab and Jezebel worship Ba’al, a storm-god. And when we stop putting God first, we also stop prioritizing our love of God’s people—even, at times, our children.

Kings are fascinating, now as well as in biblical times. But let’s never forget: fascinating as they may be, in that People Magazine kind of way, the story of scripture is not, in the end, the story of kings. The story of scripture is the story of God and all God’s people.

And so Elijah appears, Elijah the prophet. There is much confusion about that word, about what a prophet is, and what a prophet does. The simplest definition of a prophet is this: a prophet is a truth-teller. A prophet “speaks truth to power,” as the Quakers put it. Elijah speaks the truth to Ahab: “As Yahweh the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word” [1Kings 17:1]. You think your storm-god is so powerful? Watch this.

Elijah calls upon Yahweh the God of Israel to dry up the rain, a most excellent poke in the eye of the storm-god and his followers. And then, following Yahweh’s advice, Elijah high-tails it out of there. Because speaking truth to power is a risky business, and Elijah would do well to hide.

For a time Elijah lives off the land, with the help of God-directed ravens and the water from a wadi. But when the wadi dries up—because, after all, Elijah has called upon God to cause a drought, and God has done so—God tells Elijah: “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.”

Let’s just break this down, so we can truly appreciate God’s sense of, if not humor, at least irony. “Go to Zarephath.” In other words, go to the hometown of Jezebel. Yes. That’s right. The wife of the king you have just so royally ticked off, from whom you are on the run for your life.

And “Go to a widow, who will feed you.” In other words, go to one who is known to be the most vulnerable, the most likely to be poor, the least likely to have resources to help. New Yorkers, go to Rockaway. They’ll help you.


Elijah goes to the widow. He asks for a “little water” and a “morsel of bread”—not much, by any standard. And the widow replies: “As Yahweh your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die” [1 Kings 17:12].  The widow—and she is unnamed, as are so many women in scripture—she replies with words that indicate just how bad things are, just how poor she is, just how little she has. She uses words like “nothing” and “a handful” and “a little” and “a couple.” She speaks like a woman condemned, but one who is ready to die with dignity.

Under these circumstances, Elijah might have been expected to back away from his request for food. But he does not. I think it’s kind of like that part of the instructions when you are in the airplane, and they tell you to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you put it on the person next to you. Elijah is asking to have his oxygen mask first—because if he dies, the chances that he will be able to save the widow, or her son, or anyone else, go out the window. And that is what he is offering: salvation, in the first, original sense of the word. He will save lives, he will end real human suffering. The jug of oil will not go dry. The jar of meal will not run out. That is his promise.

And the widow, remarkably, goes, and does as Elijah has told her.

A friend of mine writes a regular religion column for the Albany Times-Union. This week she wrote on the topic of “All Saints,” recognizing that many churches were celebrating it, either on Thursday or today. The title of her column was “Dignity, Humanity, Humility, and Welcome.”[i] Those qualities are at the heart of the actions of that unnamed woman, the widow of Zarephath. Though she is at the end of the line, and at the end of her rope, she expresses herself and acts with quiet dignity. Her suffering and her ability to connect with another human being who is also suffering speak to her deep humanity. Her willingness to share what she has—not to mention her acknowledgement of Elijah’s God, the God of Israel—show true humility. And even though she has next to nothing, she is willing to give hospitality: welcome.

When our backs are up against the wall, and we feel we have little or nothing left to offer, we still have these things.  When we are like the ninety year-old woman who didn’t have the heart or the energy to evacuate her home in Rockaway, we still have our dignity, which allows us to speak and act as if our words and actions matter. When we are like my friend Tom who huddled in his mother’s home with his wife and son, through five days without heat, electricity, or the ability to get anywhere for gas or food, we still have our humanity, which, let’s never forget, means that we have been created in the image of God. When we are a disappointed marathon runner who really wanted a chance to test the limits of our training and our willpower, we still have our humility, which means we know the difference between ourselves and God. And when we are a young person living in a relatively unscathed part of New York City, we still have the ability to show welcome, hospitality—to organize a clothing drive for neighbors who have lost all theirs. This is the abundance of God—who we are, who we have been created to be—the kind of abundance that allows a poor widow who has absolutely nothing to nevertheless give half of that nothing to a stranger.

The story of scripture is the story of God and God’s people.  And we start with abundance: we are made in God’s image, with some tiny share in God’s capacity for reaching out to one another, for lifting one another up, for sharing a morsel of bread and a sip of drink. And when we do, the jug does not run dry, the jar does not go empty, and our story is joined to the great story, the story that never grows old. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Fran Rossi Szpylczyn, “Dignity, Humanity, Humility and Welcome,” in There Will Be Bread: a Blog of the Albany Times-Union, November 1, 2012.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Friday Five: For All the Saints!

"Dancing Saints" at the Church of Saint Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco

Thursday marked the feast of All Saints, observed by many throughout the Christian world. And many of us will observe this feast in our churches come Sunday. As a Catholic schoolgirl, I certainly had one very specific idea of what constituted a 'saint.' As a woman in her prime (ahem!) who also happens to be a Presbyterian minister... I have other thoughts!

How about you? Let's talk today about saints, how we have understood them throughout our lives. Who inspires us? Who challenges us? Whose lives have stirred us to greater discipleship? Who just has the best story we've ever heard? Try to answer these questions in each of the following categories:

1. Saints of the Bible.

 This is truly tough: there are so many! I adore the stories, in particular, of the women whose lives are known to us these thousands of years later. How amazing is that? I suppose I must go with my beloved Mary Magdalene. I remember learning about 24 years ago, when I was first in grad school, that the things I thought I knew about Mary-- she was a prostitute, she was the woman taken in adultery-- had absolutely no basis in scripture. Mind. Blown. When I seriously studied her, and learned that the early church called her "apostola apostolorum"-- apostle to the apostles-- because of her presence at the empty tomb and her joyful transmission of the news of the resurrection to Jesus' other followers, I was hooked.

2. Saints from Church History/ World History.

That Catholic schoolgirl I mentioned in the introduction had several tiny books called "Miniature Stories of the Saints," and the idea of people whom the church had lifted up for canonization was my earliest understanding of what it meant to be a saint. Unfortunately, many, many of these stories had to do with young girls choosing to undergo hideous physical torture rather than let themselves be rendered impure by... well, I didn't really understand what, at that point. But it sounded like the stuff of horror films. Saint Agatha. Saint Agnes. Saint Rose of Lima. You do NOT want to know what happened to these women and girls.

On the other hand, there were women whose lives really did capture my imagination in ways that persisted. Claire of Assisi is one. She gave up a life of luxury because she chose instead to become a bride of Christ. The power of that story stayed with me, and Franciscan spirituality still resonates with me.

On the other hand, I consider someone like Harriet Beecher Stowe to be a saint in the vein of Mahatma Gandhi: someone whose witness opened the world's eyes to injustice, who took a "social problem" and made it flesh and blood for people who would just as soon have looked away. But after "Uncle Tom's Cabin," they couldn't any longer.

3. Saints from Our Own Lives.

Oooh... so many, too many to name. But I'll try: Sister Marguerite, who taught English at my high school and became a close friend of my mother. Sister (later Mother) Mary Francis, who wrote a terrific book about cloistered Poor Clares, and later corresponded with me when I was eager to join their ranks. My Aunt Natalie. Fr. Jim, who taught me that a Catholic girl could actually open a bible and read it. (Whoa.) Tish and Fr. Bob, chaplains at college, who opened up worship for me (and thousands of others) in ways I had not imagined possible. Kerry, who showed me that some good Catholic girls end up Protestant ministers. And then all the unnameable women and men of the churches I've served. People who lived-- who live-- lives of quiet, humble service, whose goal is simply to do what Jesus would do, whether that means welcoming people to the table or rushing to take part in disaster relief. People who blow me away daily with their faith, which is so superior to mine in every way.

4. Saints from Pop Culture

 Is there anyone I love more than Saint Anne Lamotte? Probably not. It is her authenticity that gets me every time. Her Facebook status today said, in part, the following:

"When people say cheerfully, 'Let go and let God,' I just want to stab them in the forehead. I know that is not the most Jesus-y and evolved thing you 'll hear today..."   

Except, it might be. Lamotte writes about real life. She has lived hard. She has struggled with addiction and single parenthood and the loss of her very best friend in the world to cancer, and she came from a family for whom religious faith was something embarrassing, like an uncle who talks too loudly and says all the wrong things when the Rolling Stones come to dinner. But Jesus found her, broken, shaking, in need of being saved. And so now she shares the learning of her life with us all, and I am so profoundly grateful for that.

5. Saints Absolutely (Probably?) No One Else in the World Would Ever Call Saints.

I'm gonna go with singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco.  I first heard her music about fifteen years ago, when she was taking the music world by storm by simply self-publishing and releasing her albums on her own record label, Righteous Babe Records. Her music isn't for everybody. It's filled with blue language, and fairly radical politics. She talks frankly about sexuality, and she identifies as bisexual. But beneath it all she sings a sense of justice that is positively biblical in nature, like an Old Testament prophet-- the sense that the world, as it is, is not right, and we have a responsibility to make it better. I love that in a cultural icon. Ani gets my vote. Here, a song about going to church and finding a wider lens.