Sunday, May 29, 2016


I Kings18:20-39; Luke 7:1-10


Elijah was a rock star. I find it hard to believe that someone in Hollywood has not put Elijah on the silver screen. He came out of nowhere, left in a fiery chariot and even owned a cape. Elijah rivals Batman with mood swings that can only be described as half past midnight. Yet, when at his best, Elijah confidently straddles the crack of dawn and dares the sun to rise.

Elijah appeared in the midst of Israel’s darkest days. Sometimes I wonder why Elijah can’t reappear and resolve the mess that surrounds us. Yet there is something to be feared from resurrecting Elijah. With his fervor, comes a rage that will not tolerate compromise. This morning I want us to examine this mega-hero, the evil that necessitated his arrival, and then consider if the presence of Christ should make us wary of anyone with Elijah’s uncompromised zeal.

That last sentence makes me quake in my golf shoes. I love the story of Mount Carmel. One of my personal heroes, Isabel Rogers, told this story with such passion that Elijah has always been my main inspiration when there is a windmill to be attacked. Therein lies the problem. Is a knight in rusty armor the only solution to the complexities of the 21st century? But before wrestling this dilemma, perhaps some of you are not familiar with the complexities faced by this ancient prophet.

Around 860 BCE, the northern kingdom of Israel was ruled by King Ahab. The somewhat bias writer of I Kings described Ahab as more evil than any of his predecessors. But Ahab’s reputation hardly rivaled that of his wife, Jezebel. She was a native of Sidon and instituted the worship of Ball as the official religion of the land. Baal was the god of rain, and fertility.

In response to this edict by Jezebel, Elijah the Tishbite appeared and declared Yahweh the one true God. Elijah warned Yahweh would expose the infertility of Baal by causing a draught throughout the land. In response, Jezebel arranged for all the prophets of Yahweh to be hunted down and slaughtered. Elijah became enemy number one in the Kingdom of Ahab while the people of Israel suffered three years without water. Only when there was no longer enough water for the king’s livestock did  Ahab demanded a meeting with Elijah. It was mutually decided Mt. Carmel would be where the confrontation was to be resolved.

One side of the mountain was occupied by 450 priest of Baal. Elijah stood alone. The citizens of Israel watched to see who would emerge victorious. Two alters were prepared, one to Baal and a one to Yahweh. The deity who lit the alter would be declared victorious.

The priest of Baal went first. All morning they offered prayers, sang songs, even mutilated themselves to show their loyalty to Baal. Elijah was not silent. He began to taunt the priest. “Maybe your god is hard of hearing. Maybe he has taken a trip. Maybe he is sleeping and you are not yelling loud enough. Maybe he just doesn’t care.”

Midday passed and Baal’s alter remained unlit. Now it was Elijah’s turn. Elijah took twelve stones, each representing one of the tribes of Israel and built an alter. Then Elijah had the people pour twelve buckets of water over the alter, completely soaking it. Finally Elijah spoke. “O God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, I have done everything you have asked.  Let it be known that you are God.”

Lightening fell from heaven consuming the alter with fire. Wood, rock and water were all destroyed by the heat. The people of Israel fell on their faces and cried out, “Yahweh is God. Yahweh is God.” Then Elijah demanded the people seize the prophets of Baal and take them to the Kishon Valley. There they were slaughtered. When the killing ended, it began to rain.

With the exception of the Exodus from Egypt, no other story is more celebrated in the Old Testament. Like the Exodus, this is a demonstration of faith by one man. Like Pharaoh, Ahab and Jezebel represent evil personified. Both stories affirm the omnipotence and sovereignty of Yahweh. No one, not the witnesses, or the tellers of the stories or the future listeners to the stories seem to question the slaughter of the armies of Egypt or the priests of Baal. They picked the wrong guy and paid the price.

We don’t live in 9th century Israel. Nonetheless our days are stained with stories of zealots killing and maiming others in the name of God. Do we equate the exploits of Elijah with those who conduct public executions? How do we handle accusations that, “My God is better than your God,” or “Our faith is better than your faith”?

I believe we live in a time when it is imperative that people of different faiths respect rather than denigrate each other. My faith story and my understanding of God came through the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. I believe there is a holy distinctiveness in folks who believe differently than I. It is not my wish to dilute my beliefs or the faith of another, but this can become sinking sand. So where do we begin?

I did not read the gospel text this morning so you will have to trust me that I am correctly telling the story. You can find it in the seventh chapter of Luke.

Jesus had finished a busy day of teaching. Seeking rest for the night Jesus entered the city of Capernaum, a fishing village on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. A Centurion in the Roman Army sent some of the elders from the local Synagogue to see if Jesus might come and attend to one of his slaves who was ill. The elders informed Jesus that the soldier treated the people of Capernaum well and even helped them build their synagogue. Jesus got up immediately and went to the home of the centurion. Again friends of the centurion intercepted Jesus and said, “Our master does not believe himself worthy for you to come to his house. He knows that just a word from you will heal his slave.”  Jesus was touched by the humbleness of the Roman soldier and remarked, “Not in all of Israel have I seen such faith.” When the friends of the centurion returned to the house, they found the slave had been healed.

The Roman was a gentile. In the eyes of the Jewish people he was unclean. He was also a centurion. He was in charge of the garrison in Capernaum. The man held the power of life or death over this town yet it appears, in all of his actions, he chose life. Jesus immediately recognized this quality in the centurion. A Jew and a Gentile, a man of power and the son of a carpenter, find a holy intersection. Because of this connection, life, not death occurs.

Why was Jesus born into this world? I can fall back on my standard 101 theology and declare Jesus came to save the world from sin. But the answer is far more complicated. From the beginning God decreed that we choose life over death. How is that possible? We are commanded to love God and our neighbor, unconditionally.

Doesn’t this apply to the Prophets of Baal? This is a terribly complicated question into which I have to interject what I have been told concerning the personalities of Ahab and Jezebel. But in the gospels, a gentile was living as God desired and Jesus responded to his request.

Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, Buddhist and even the non-religious are quick to condemn folks different from themselves simply because they are different. While I celebrate the bravery of Elijah, does anyone have the right to commit murder? I think we all weary of death in the name of God. Why not celebrate life in the name of God even if the name used to honor God might not be the one we choose?

Imagine being in a convocation of the great religions. One at a time the representative of each group is asked to stand and offer a phrase that he or she could never give up. The person representing Christianity thinks for a moment and then declares, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and you neighbor as yourself.” A man representing the Hebrew faith declared, “You have quoted from our books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.” I honor your words.” One by one, representatives from every religion stood and said, “I also believe in those words.” The Christian was initially amazed, but then responded, “I’m sorry, what I meant to say was, ‘Love my God with all your heart, soul and mind.” The room fell silent as each representative returned to their seat.

Wouldn’t it be nice if our religions didn’t spend so much time on what we believed and worked harder on how God would have us treat each other? If your beliefs call for the death of another, are you following the voice of God? If your belief calls for you to love your neighbor, no matter who that neighbor might be, this certainly becomes complicated. But at least together, we are discussing life.

What distinguishes our faith from other religions is this unique character called Jesus through whom we have received the life giving gift of grace. Who are we to limit the parameters of this gift? Jesus certainly didn’t.         Amen.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Beyond Suffering

Romans 5:1-5


        Long ago, so long ago memories are often exaggerated, I worshipped a small white ball, stitched in red. Baseball was my life. Before I was seven I dreamed of playing shortstop for the Boston Red Sox. Such a goal demanded focus, commitment and an extraordinary skill set. I possessed two of the three. My battle cry was, “No pain, no gain.” Unfortunately no amount of pain can compensate for “warning track power.” Denied my dream, I eventually concentrated on  golf, an exercise in which mental anguish begins immediately after the ball is struck. But my approach has matured. I now recognize a bad shot as an opportunity to make something good happen. Every Friday I am given ample chances to test this strategy as I encounter trees, sand traps and water hazards. What is the source of such wisdom? Would you believe the Apostle Paul?

        As I have grown older, Romans 5:1-5 has become one of my go to verses. “Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint.” I am not suggesting we need to become masochistic to fully understand God. But I do believe our society has become so drama driven we would rather complain than consider suffering as an opportunity to discover ourselves and the world around us.

        Imagine living in the world of Paul. I believe a major reason for the explosion of Christianity was the people who heard the preaching of Paul experienced suffering every day. Paul’s message did not resonate with the rich and powerful. His attempts to debate the intellectuals in Athens pretty much fell on deaf ears. The rich and the powerful understood their privilege as a blessing from the gods. They believed the rest of humanity only existed to uphold their advantageous position. “God is with us, therefore you will serve us,” is the declaration of any Empire. Paul’s audience came from the opposite end of the political and economic spectrum. The folks who worshipped in Corinth, and Philippi and Thessalonica were slaves and women. They had no ear for a god who would justify their station in society and therefore were quick to embrace Paul’s defiant message promising God’s concern for and presence with those who suffer.

        We misinterpret Paul if we believe the Book of Romans encourages folks to only look within themselves to find happiness. Paul wrote to a burdened people, overwhelmed by the whims of privileged folk who shared no concern for the existence of the oppressed. Those broken by the chains of tyranny were seen as less valuable than livestock. To these who were forgotten, Paul dared to write, “Nothing can separate you from the love of God.”

        Please don’t think Paul was suggesting Christianity existed only for slaves, the oppressed, or those marked by affliction. What Paul would have us consider is people are not pronounced blessed because of their wealth or achievements but rather by their ability to see beyond their current condition. If God is with us, then God works with us to overcome that which enslaves us. I suspect most of us have been slaves to something. Many are even  enslaved by the way they understand God.

        Seventeen years ago, I had the opportunity to spend time in a seminary outside of Havana. If you have the chance to visit Cuba, I would suggest you go now before it turns back into a casino. It is an island filled with paradox and wonder. The seminary was a microcosm of the island. The student body represented an interesting mixture of faith filled folks. They included Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Protestants of various flavors, and even a few folks who practiced a Christ centered belief flavored with ancient African customs. Where does one begin when faced with such a diversity of dogma?

If you are a student of a main line denomination in the United States, the first day of class begins with the doctrine of salvation. On the second day you discuss how all the other denomination’s concept of salvation is ill-conceived. That is not where you start theology 101 if your class includes students from traditions as varied as Catholicism, Baptist and Voodoo? Taking a tip from the Old Testament, this particular seminary began with the Doctrine of Creation, confirming we are all part of God’s original plan to live in perfect harmony with God and each other. But something went horribly wrong with God’s plan, not once but twice. First human nature introduced greed, power, and arrogance into the equation of life, separating us from our wholesome relationship with God and humanity. Second, bad theology convinced many Christians that the only way back to the good graces of God was through our death at which time we are saved from this dark world of sin and corruption. The folks in Cuba identified the problem with this scenario. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible speaks against such nonsense.  From the beginning, God has called for a return to our original creation, putting the emphasis on life before death, not vice versa.

To be more specific, our theology and especially our songs, have been kidnapped by a “when we all get to heaven” mentality. When our focus is only on what happens when we die, we fail to concentrate on the components of fear and evil which work in concert to destroy all that is good in God’s holy creation.

Paul understands this because Paul initially made the same mistake. In his earliest letters, Paul wrote, “Every day might be the day that Christ will return in all his glory. Our focus must be on preparing for that day.” But as Paul grew older, he began to fully comprehend that no one knows the mind of God. His eyes were open to the corruptness of authority which burdened the human spirit. His tone switched from God is coming, to God is with us now. Those who are enslaving you are working against the will of God. Amazingly, this revelation of Paul was placed on the back burner when the church became an institution rather than a liberating force for the freedom of the human soul.

In the last 2,000 years, how many times has Christianity found itself compromised or in league with those obsessed with power. The Holy Roman Empire was not so holy. In the Middle Ages rulers, with the blessings of the priest, flourished on the backs of the peasants. The Reformation brought reform but hardly changed the status of the oppressed. American churches were built by slaves.  All of this oppression was upheld by the promise that servitude to the master guaranteed salvation upon death.

But that is not the message of the Bible . Because of the grace of God we are called to live in a world where all things are possible. To quote N.T. Wright, “Living between the resurrection of Christ and the final coming together of all things allows us the chance to both celebrate and work towards God’s healing of this world.”

God has never left us and God has never left this world. Yet we  still opt out of living because sometimes life and those things that enslave us seem too difficult. It is easier to say, “When we get to heaven things will be perfect.” But that is not the language of God.

I know every person here has faced obstacles. I feel confident in saying while those obstacles might have caused you pain or heart ache, but at some point you decided the thorn in your side would not define who you are.

Likewise God will not be defined by human failure. God will not be defined by evil or oppression and most importantly God will not be defined by bad theology. Paul was writing to a people who wanted to check out. They were afraid and tired and had lost their reason for living. Paul would hear none of it. “Because you believe in God you share in the glory of God.  Don’t be enslaved by your suffering, embrace it, for suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character and character produces hope and hope will never disappoint us.”

Peter Steinke says, “We ‘waste’ suffering if we gloss over it, deny, avoid or neglect its message. But if we learn from our pain, it is not wasted and becomes a source of life and health.”

Martin Luther King talked often about an elderly lady in his congregation named Mother Pollard. When fear or weariness or self-doubt would sometimes overtake Dr. King, Mother Pollard would come up to him and say, “Son, you didn’t talk so strong tonight.  Remember, we are with you all the way. But even if we weren’t with you, God will be. Don’t you ever forget, when fear knocks on your door, let your faith open it, and no one will be there.”

My friends, faith can transform the whirlwind of despair into a warm breeze of hope giving us the endurance and character to remember God always stands with us. God always has. And God always will.           Amen.

Sunday, May 8, 2016


Luke 24:44-53; John 17:25-26



        Unless you come from a liturgical tradition higher than the Presbyterian Church, I doubt you celebrate the Ascension of Our Lord. The Ascension is observed exactly 40 days after Easter which always falls on a Thursday. With the exception of Maundy Thursday, we are not big on Thursday services. The other problem is Hallmark has not put out a line of Ascension Day Cards. That keeps it from being considered a real holiday. Furthermore, Ascension and Transfiguration are among those mystical scriptures that make us a bit uneasy. The idea of Jesus floating off into the clouds seems too much like something we would encounter in a 3-D movie. This image has certainly given credence to the idea that heaven must be skyward. All I know is anytime a sports star does something he believes to be spectacular, he assumes God was watching and points up.

        Nonetheless, I find this to be an interesting scripture. When Jesus ascended, the hearts of the disciples sunk. What a rollercoaster ride they experienced. First Jesus calls them by name to a ministry they could not imagine. Then Jesus was arrested and executed. For three days they were lost, only to be even more confused by his return. The next forty days he walked among them. I imagine Jesus showed a little swagger every time he pointed to his hands or feet. Can we blame Jesus if he bragged just a little? Can’t you hear him saying, “I told you I was coming back and none of you believed. Well, what do you think of me now?”

        It is amazing how proof lifts the human spirit. While we talk about faith all the time, most of us are hesitant to jump into a new adventure. It is always better if someone else takes that leap of faith. I once took a number of young people on an excursion to a lake outside of Fort Worth. At one end of the lake was a huge cliff that towered over the water. I had been told it was safe to jump from the cliff because the water was at least 30 feet deep. But my allowing anyone in my group to jump had to be based on more than the spoken word.   I had the owner of our boat take me near the cliff. When we arrived I looked up and witnessed this Amazon of a woman preparing to jump. I marveled at her courage as she leaped from the cliff, holding her body erect as she plunged into the waters below. Imagine my surprise when the girl, barely ten, emerged from the water screaming, “Daddy, can we do it again?”

        Once the disciples experienced the risen Lord, the words of the Prophets and Psalms became perfectly clear. Faith no longer seemed necessary. They had proof. Christ was among them. He emerged from death and told them to jump on in, the water was fine. God’s truth, and God’s vision were real to the disciples because Jesus was once more in their presence. Peter once again regained his boastfulness and probably declared, “Jesus wherever you go, I am right behind you.” I wonder if Peter even heard Jesus say, “Not yet Peter. Not yet. I am only here for a moment.”

        Suddenly everything made sense to the disciples. How difficult is it to believe in the resurrection when the one you assumed dead is standing in your midst? What a glorious moment it must have been. But it was only for a moment, and then once again, Jesus was gone.

        Now imagine the disciples looking up as Jesus ascended. Imagine the disciples wondering what would happen next. Imagine their fears returning. Imagine their faith based on proof disintegrating. Imagine one of the disciples crying out, “He has left us.” Imagine the voice of God softly saying, “And what has he left you?”

        Because I complained about it so much, most of you are aware that recently I spent a week in Dante’s level of hell known as Disneyworld. The only advantage I had was being tall enough to see my desired destination while thousand of zombies surrounded me chanting, “When you wish upon a star.”  Can you imagine what my 23 month old granddaughter must have experienced? Refusing the safety of a stroller, Siddalee would attempt to brave the madness. I suspect all she could see was their knees. When her spirit was almost quenched Siddalee would holler, “Up Granddaddy, Up.” I would lift her up on my shoulders where she could observe the insanity. Once there, she delightfully sang a song liberating my ears from any zombie’s mantra.

        The disciples wanted to be lifted up out of the madness they feared would consume them. They wanted to be lifted up to join their Lord. They so feared being left behind, they didn’t realize what Jesus had left. As the clouds closed, each disciple prayed to also be lifted up, and they were, but not to the heavens, but upon the shoulders of God’s grace. It was then that the disciples heard the words, “It is your turn. You have seen the Christ; now you must tell the story. I will lift you up, so that you can sing God’s song.”

        As much as our faith is dependent on what God has done, the church finds its life in what we will do. If Jesus had stayed, everything would have centered only on him. Jesus would have told more stories, healed more folks who were sick.  Peter and Paul and the thousand of saints that followed would have remained in the shadows of the light of Christ. Why build a church if God is among us? Why live for tomorrow if it doesn’t get any better than today? Jesus knew there would be no Pentecost while he was on earth. Messiahs spark a revolution. But is it the masses that turn a revolution into a movement. Jesus said, “Sit on my shoulders so you can see the future. Then together we will walk toward God’s destiny.”

        I grow weary hearing people complain that God is not doing enough or God ought to step back into the world and straighten everything out. It is as if they are saying once Jesus disappeared into the clouds, all was lost. The truth is, from the moment Jesus left, we became the body of Christ. From the moment Jesus left, we became the hands of Christ. From the moment Jesus left, we became the shoulders of Christ, with the specific task of lifting someone else up and affirming that they are a child of God.

        How can we find the courage or the faith to do this? We have the Psalmist who sang, “The heavens are declaring the glory of God”. We have the prophets living by the words, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind and your neighbor as yourself.” We have Jesus promising, “I am the resurrection”. We have the apostle Paul guarantying, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God.”

        These affirmations are planted in our very soul. They are our reason for being. But following the Word of the Lord is not easy. Nowhere did the psalmist or the prophets or the apostles say, “Believe and everything will perfectly fall into place.” Instead they said trust in the Lord and keep singing.

        I have a favorite song that lifts me up any time my eyes stray from the prize. I suspect many of you know it.

                My life goes on in endless song,

                Above earth’s lamentations.

                I hear the real, though far off hymn,

                That hails a new creation.

                Through all the tumult and the strife,

                I hear its music ringing,

                The sound that echoes in my soul,

                How can I keep from singing?

        Anyone here who has not been blessed? Then how can we keep from singing.

        Anyone here suffered from the death of a love one and not been comforted by the presence of God? Then how can we keep from singing.

        Anyone here ever cry, “God lift me up to higher ground.” Then how can we keep from singing.

        As God has lifted us up, so God has called us to do some heavy lifting. There is someone you know that needs to know they are loved. There is someone you know who needs to be comforted. There is someone you know who has lost hope. But God’s command goes beyond the familiar. There is someone you hate who needs to be understood, someone you fear who needs to be approached, someone you have marginalized that needs to be recognized, someone you have ignored that needs to hear their name.

        Look down. See the world around you.

Look down. Witness the hurt that surrounds you.

Look down. Notice on whose shoulders you are riding.

Then look up and witness the glory the stars declare.

Look up and remember the words of the prophets.

Look up and see the face of Christ.

What you do next will come naturally.