Sunday, June 30, 2019

I Didn't Sign Up for This!

Luke 9:57-62; 2 Kings 2:5-14


        Just before Elijah’s fiery Uber arrived to transport him skyward, the charismatic prophet had an uninspiring conversation with his protégée, Elisha. It went something like this.

        Elisha said: I had a great night’s sleep and a fabulous breakfast. When do we start?

        Elijah responded: I sleep with one eye opened and haven’t eaten anything but bread and water for years.

        Elisha: No wonder you want to retire. Well the good news is I am here to pick up your mantle.

        Elijah: You are such an idiot. No one wants my job. The hours are ridiculous, the pay is non-existent, and I only survive thanks to the hospitality of inhospitable widows.

        Elisha: I think you are exaggerating. I have witnessed your work. You stood toe to toe with Jezebel.

        Elijah: Well my last act will be to stand toe to toe with you as I beg you to go home.

        Elisha: Am I not worthy?

        Elijah: No one is worthy. Yahweh is a hard God who is never satisfied. Run away before it is too late.

        Elisha: I shall only run toward you.

        Elijah: Then kiss your life good-bye. I see my ride coming. Son, you are on your own.

        Imagine showing up at church, excited to hear the word of God, and the minister’s opening line is, “Why don’t you just go home? The life God has planned for you is too hard. It will leave you broken and discouraged. Get out now while the getting is good.”

        One thing for certain, that minister would never have to worry with a building campaign.    Who in their right mind wants to follow footsteps that deep? We prefer the responsibility of faithfulness be reversed. We are happiest when singing, Fear not I am with thee, O be not dismayed, for I am thy God, and will still give thee aid.  I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand, upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.

        Thank goodness Jesus came along to rescue us from disillusioned prophets like Elijah. Thank goodness Jesus understands that we each have a life. Thank goodness Jesus appreciates the sacrifices we make by showing up here one hour each week. And thank goodness Luke 9:57 only shows up once every three years in the lectionary.

        In case you were sleeping as the gospel was read let me refresh your memory.

        Jesus said: Follow Me.

        The Disciple responded: I would follow you anywhere.

        Jesus: You will have no place to lay your head.

        Disciple: I understand. And I will catch up with you as soon as I bury my father.

        Jesus: Let the dead bury their own dead.

        Disciple: But Jesus, we are talking family. I need to say good-bye to those I love.

        Jesus: If you are going to look back, why do I need you?

        On reading this text Barbara Brown Taylor remarked, “Even Pharaoh gave the Hebrews a day off to bury Joseph.” Regardless if you are the eager Elisha who wants to follow in the footsteps of his hero or the converted disciple inspired by a story of Jesus, no one wants their aspirations dashed before the first cup of coffee. 

        This is a hard, but necessary text. Nothing easy comes after conversion. There are two important truths about our faith I hope all of you embrace. The first is, God is faithful. Our God does not quit and our God persists in doing justice and righteousness through thick and thin. There are times I have doubted this. There are times I have wondered if God had gotten lost. But as I have reviewed history from a theological context, I have witnessed remarkable examples of healing and reconciliation in a world bent on self-destruction. If in 1970 you had told me in my life time Viet Nam would be a treasured vacation spot, a Black man would become president, and women and gay men would be running for the presidency I would have thought you were crazy. But looking back with theological eyes I have to admit God’s ways are mysterious and  God’s ways are beyond my understanding but when it comes to justice and righteousness, God is faithful.

        And that leads to a second truth concerning our faith. In terms of justice and righteousness, God expects us to be faithful. Our Bible study group just finished the book of Judges this week. That experiment in faithlessness can be summed up in one sentence, “Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.”

        It is so easy to imagine that all we have to do is believe in Jesus and everything will be alright. If that were true then no one would be bugging me with the ridiculous question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” If no one has taken the time to inform you, bad things happen to all people. The real question becomes how people of faith respond to misfortune, particularly the misfortune of others. This is the  radical question asked by a God who insists we are our brother’s and sister’s keeper and our linage has nothing to do with bloodlines. Faithfulness eliminates boundaries. If a family needs wood we don’t ask if they belong to a church. If a child needs food, we don’t ask her to come to this church to receive it. If a prayer request is made, we don’t ask if the recipient is Christian. We deliver wood. We fill backpacks. We increase our prayer list. We have discovered faithfulness is easy when the request is close to home.

        So what happens when we see the picture of a father and child lying face down in the Rio Grande just inches from our border? Now faithfulness becomes hard. Elijah said to Elisha, “I don’t want you to witness what I have seen. I don’t want you to have to stand in the midst of human misery and realize our God expects a response. God’s expectations are too hard. Go home.”

        Jesus sees a possible disciple coming his way and Jesus knows that disciple cannot endure the road ahead. Jesus wasn’t headed to a revival. He was headed toward an encounter with death.  It was not going to be accidental. It was not be an unfortunate encounter with a mysterious disease. It would be the premeditated elimination of a voice crying out for mercy for those enslaved by deceit, greed, and power. Jesus knew this particular disciple would never be ready to follow him. So Jesus told him to go home.

        Most days it is easy to be a disciple of the Lord. It seldom conflicts with our social contacts, our lifestyle, our political leanings, or our love of our nation. But then we see a picture. We are horrified. We cry out, “How can this happen?” And then we turn the page or switch the channel when life becomes too horrific. We depend on our family, or our neighbors, or even our political affiliations to tell us what to think. But how often do halt our lives and prayerfully ask, “Jesus, what would have me do?”       (STOP)

        I give thanks that God is faithful. Too often I am not.



Sunday, June 23, 2019

What Are You Doing Up Here?

I Kings 19:1-15


        “I lift up my eyes unto the hills.”

        Living in Rockfish Valley this has become our go to phrase. Each morning I wake up to the idyllic rhapsody of Lake Monacan being caressed by the loving arms of Crawford Mountain. When the world leaves me grasping for answers I ride my bicycle on the Skyline Drive to clear my mind. When death dares to cross our threshold, you will often find me walking the trail up to Humpback.  Even on a warm summer’s day Humpback offers a crispness in the air which revives my soul and refreshes my memories.

        “I lift up my eyes to the hills.” Standing with a family in our cemetery these are the words that most often come to my lips. The bereaved look up and imagine their beloved walking toward eternity. Earth has released its hold and life is revived in our sacred hills.

        But are the mountains where we find God? Not according to the Psalmist. Psalm 121 reads, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. But where will I find my help?” I love the mountains as much as anyone here. They offer peace and tranquility. But while the mountains are God’s creation, they are not God’s permanent residence. It wouldn’t surprise me if God kept a condo up there for an occasional visit. But God is much too busy to consider an extended vacation. If you don’t believe me, ask the prophet Elijah.

        The Holy Trinity of the Old Testament is Abraham, Moses, and Elijah. David gets a lot of press but the Bathsheba incident kept him off Mount Rushmore. Abraham was the father of the Hebrew people. Moses delivered the law to slaves on the road to freedom. Elijah became Israel’s moral compass. Unfortunately during the days of Elijah, Israel’s compass seldom pointed north.

        Elijah’s main nemesis was Queen Jezebel. Let’s have a quick show of hands. How many of you have a daughter? In your arduous search for the perfect name, did any of you consider Jezebel? Of course not! You might not even know the story of Jezebel yet that name never came up. No one in the Old Testament was as vile and devious as Jezebel. She ordered all the prophets of Yahweh to be killed.  She executed Naboth so her husband could grow tomatoes. She demanded everyone worship Baal, the fertility god. Everything Jezebel touched was stained by deceit and evil. So Yahweh sent Elijah to confront her.

        The original confrontation was to take place at Mt. Carmel, but the Queen did not even bother showing up. Instead she sent her husband Ahab and 450 priest of Baal to do her dirty work. The last words those  priest heard before meeting their demise was, “You don’t mess with Yahweh.”

        Exuberant from his victory at Mt. Carmel, Elijah screamed at King Ahab. “You go tell your wife what happened here. You tell her I am coming to Jezreel and bringing  with me all of the fury of Yahweh. You tell Jezebel Baal is dead to her people and she will soon be joining her god.” Ahab jumped in his chariot and headed home. Flush with victory Elijah ran in front of the king.    (stop)

The distance from Mt. Carmel to Jezreel is 17 miles. I doubt many of us have actually run 17 miles, at least not recently. 17 miles is not a short distance. Even on a bicycle 17 miles gets my attention. But when I ride that far, I do some of my best thinking. At mile one I begin to work on a sermon.  By the fourth mile I see a clear path. But by the time I reach mile 10 I am confronted with all the flaws in my logic. Clarity only begins to arrive about mile 13 and by mile 17 I can’t wait to put all my thoughts down on paper.

Elijah started running toward Jezebel. By mile post 4 he couldn’t  wait to confront the Queen and have her begging for mercy. Elijah knows her only recourse is to abdicate the throne and declare Yahweh God. At mile post 10 Elijah begins to question his clarity. By mile post 13 Elijah begins to slow down. Each step toward Jezreel becomes heavier. For the first time all day fear replaced faith. At the 17th mile Elijah is not surprised to see a representative of Jezebel waiting for him. The message from the Queen was quite clear.  “I will kill you before the sun rises.” The man who delivered the word of the Lord to 450 prophets of Baal turned…. lifted his eyes toward the hills…. and ran away!

A frightened, compromised Elijah spent the next 40 days and 40 nights in the mountains. Why that long? Do you really think Elijah wanted to encounter God? Jezebel was still Queen! Forget Mt. Carmel. Elijah had failed.

40 days alone; 40 nights fearing Jezebel might find him; 40 mornings hoping God would appear; 40 evenings giving thanks that God remained silent…... And on the 41st day the silence was broken. “Elijah, what are you doing here?”

Ever been guilty as sin and still squirmed for your life.  Listen to the great Elijah. “God, I have been faithful, but  all your followers are dead. Everyone else has deserted you. Jezebel is out there looking for me. I am the only one left. What do you want of me?”

God said, “Go stand out on the ledge.”

Elijah obeyed. The wind came up. It howled so viciously Elijah feared he would be swept over the edge. But God was not in the wind. There was an earthquake that nearly split the rock where Elijah was standing. Elijah got down on his knees praying the earth would stop shaking. But God was not in the earthquake. Fire erupted. The air was so hot Elijah could hardly breathe. He covered his head unable to imagine what might happen next. Still God did not appear. Then there was a silence so deafening Elijah could hear the pounding of his frightened heart. A second time  God said, “Elijah, what are you doing here?”   (stop)

Greek mythologies claim Poseidon to be the god of the oceans.  Roman mythologies listed Jupiter as the god of the sky. Baal was worshipped as the god of the mountains. The Psalmist comes along claiming Yahweh not only formed the sea, the sky, and the mountains but had dominion them. So If Baal was tenant of the hills, where would Elijah find God?


And where are we supposed to find God?

THE ANSWER HAS NEVER CHANGED. God is in the trenches confronting not only Jezebel, but sickness, hopelessness, weariness, and despair.

Some like to think of God in the mountains sitting around the camp fire as we sing Kum Ba Yah.

God doesn’t need pep rallies.

Some claim God to be our champion in battle or even the field of athletic endeavors.

God doesn’t play favorites.

Some insist God is alive and well on cable TV and the world wide web.

God doesn’t do face-book.

Some call for God’s blessing as a tag line to their political agenda.

God is neither blue, red or purple.


God confronts death, and so should we. You want to find God? Visit the hospitals and nursing homes.

God confronts loneliness. You want to find God? Pick up the phone and say hello to someone living alone.

God confronts despair. You want to find God? Become involved in the life of a teenager.

God confronts injustice. You want to find God? Go walk beside someone who has been marginalized.

I could go on and on but the bottom line is this,

You want to find God?


Then go find Jezebel.

        God will be there waiting for you.


        To God be the glory.  Amen.


Sunday, June 9, 2019

A Tall Fragile Tale

Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21

I know it is Pentecost. Some of you wore red to remind me. After writing a new Pentecost sermon for 38 consecutive years, I have extinguished all creativity on that subject. It is the closest I will ever get to feeling like Leonard Cohen. He wrote “Hallelujah”, one of the greatest songs known to humankind. Unfortunately he kept adding verses to the original. By the time he got to verse 25 he had forgotten why he created the song in the first place. That is the way I feel about writing a 39th sermon about Pentecost.

Fortunately the Old Testament text is the Tower of Babel. A misreading of Genesis 11 would have us believe the languages of the world originated with a failed attempt to build a tower to heaven. Add to the mix the words from Peter’s Pentecost sermon, “Everyone understood in his own language”, and many preachers would have you believe Pentecost restored the language the Tower of Babel debacle destroyed. Fortunately for you I am not just any preacher.

This tall tale has its origins in the folklore of Babylon. The original begins with an innocent question, “Why do other cultures not speak Babylonian?”  The Babylonian answer was obvious. The language of the gods was spoken only by Babylonians. Those who helped with the building of the great ziggurats were the children of the god Marduk. They spoke the holy language. The others were scattered to the far regions. They were not allowed to utter the holy words.

The exiled residents of Jerusalem spoke Hebrew. They were quite proud of their language and heritage and had no desire to assimilate into the Babylonian culture. Some very clever writer heard the story of the ziggurats and created a response which mocked the efforts of the Babylonians. Listen to the story as told with a Hebrew voice.

Once upon a time everyone spoke the same language. They migrated from the east and came to the great Tigris-Euphrates basin. The people said to each other, “Let’s make a name for ourselves. We will build a city with a great tower. If we don’t we shall be scattered throughout the earth.” So they began to build. But finding stone was hard work, so they substituted bricks. Not wanting to take the time to make quality mortar, they substituted bitumen, a low grade tar. God looked down at the people creating a tower with sub-grade materials. God knew it was only a matter of time before the tower would collapse upon itself. Its foundation was sand, not rock.   God said, “I will go down and multiply their language so they will not be able to finish their foolishness.” Frustrated, the people left the city and scattered throughout the region. The unfinished tower was called Babel because God confused their language.

The re-telling of this story is so simplistically complex. That is what makes any story great. Let’s start with the name of the tower. In the original story the tower and city were called Babylon, which means, “Gateway to the Gods”. The residents of the city saw themselves as the center of the universe. They had victories over the Assyrians and Egyptians. The story in Genesis shortens the name to Babel, which in Hebrew means, “to confuse”.

Second, notice the material that was used to build the tower. It was second rate. When we put our best foot forward, amazing results abound. But when we cut corners, disasters abound. The same is true of our commitment to God. When we claim that we will live our lives as a holy sacrifice and then take shortcuts, it is amazing how quickly our holy pilgrimage gets sidetracked.

But I have saved the best for last. God said, “I will scatter them.” From the beginning of time humans have feared being scattered. It takes us out of our comfort zone. We might encounter folks different from us. We might have to learn a new language to communicate. Scattering makes us fearful, even hateful. At first glance scattering is horrifying. But what happens when we are all the same?

We have just celebrated the 75th anniversary of the landing at Normandy. Remember the ultimate goal of Nazi Germany? Hitler wanted to create a master race in which everyone had blue eyes and blond hair. Everyone would look like and think like their neighbor. But who landed at Normandy? The soldiers came from the UK, Canada, US, Poland, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Netherlands, Norway, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. The American Cemetery at Colleville sur Mer includes Protestants, Roman Catholics and Jews. Buried in that sacred ground are Whites, Hispanic, African-Americans and Native Americans. In other words, it was those who were scattered who brought down the Third Reich.

Genesis 10:32, the verse just before the telling of the Tower of Babel Story reads, “These are the families of Noah. They became scattered all over the earth to become nations.” The text reveals that the fear of scattering expresses a resistance to God’s purpose for creation. The tower, in both stories, was an attempt to resist a divine directive of celebrating diverse opinions. Isn’t humanity always at its best when a variety of folks come together with a smorgasbord of ideas to solve difficult problems? Aren’t faulty solutions often the results of a lack of original thinking? Imagine if one person in the story had said, “Where I come from, stone last a lot longer than bricks.”

Believe it or not that brings me back to Pentecost. Peter was a fisherman with an extremely limited viewpoint. He stands before a crowd in Jerusalem, which is the center of his universe. But he remembers Jesus saying, “One day we are going to rebuild the Temple, but it won’t look anything like the old one.” Peter has a story that needs to be told and a vision he wants to share. Peter has no desire to go backwards. The resurrection has revealed God has chosen all of creation, not just one people.  But Peter is limited by his history, his culture, even his faith. Then his eyes focus. He is surrounded by folks who have been scattered. They came from Partha, Medes, Elam, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Cyrene, Rome and Arabia.  Peter speaks only one language and probably had a horrible Galilean accent.  He is a hick from the sticks. Who cared what he had to say? The only thing Peter had going for him was he trusted God. Slowly Peter spoke and each person heard in his or her own language.

 This isn’t the creation of a new language. It’s like being at the UN with head sets. So listen in on what Peter said. “God has poured out the Spirit upon you in order that you might see visions and dream dreams.” Peter had the courage to announce, “What I have got to share is bigger than all of us. It can’t be limited to Jerusalem. It can’t be restricted to one voice. It is going to take every one of you to scatter throughout the world and spread the good news that God still blows a holy wind into our emptiness.”

The folks that day in Jerusalem may never have heard of Jesus but they had experienced chaos. They may not have known of the young prophet who had been killed, but they witnessed a voice filled with joy.  They might  not been raised in the religion of Moses, but they now heard of a God who offered hope instead of despair, visions instead of nightmares, life instead of death.  And they scattered, not out of fear, not out of self-preservation, not out of disbelief. They scattered because they wanted to run home and tell their families, and their friends, and even those folks they didn’t like very much what they had heard. They scattered, because the breath of God touched their souls, and they were not afraid.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah. 

Sing it with me.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.



Sunday, June 2, 2019

They Just Won't Shut Up!

Acts 16:16-34

        Paul was annoyed. I find that amusing because Paul has been annoying folks for over 2,000 years. Paul was upset because he was trying to have a meaningful conversation with the good folks of Philippi and every time he attempted to speak a young woman would scream, “These men are slaves of the most high God.” You would think Paul would have applauded such an introduction. But the problem was she never quit yelling. Every time Paul tried to speak, the woman interrupted. She was like a warm up band that refused to get off the stage. She would not shut up. The more she yelled, the madder Paul got. Finally Paul had enough. Suspecting she was possessed, Paul ordered the evil spirit to leave the girl. She immediately became mute and Paul proceeded to preach the gospel. End of story? No, it was only the beginning.      

        It seems the woman was born with the ability to tell the future.  She must have been quite good at it. A group of men had invested in her skills and were making a small fortune off her gift. Was it ethical for them to take advantage of her? Probably not. Was Paul out of line in shutting down their source of income? Notice how everything is so clear until there is a clash between morality and commerce. Regardless of the conclusions we draw, the men who owned the woman were furious. One minute they owned a cash cow. The next minute her milk had dried up. She was useless to them and they were furious. Now they wouldn’t shut up! They went to the local authorities and demanded restitution for their loss of income. Their complaint was quite simple, “These men are different from us and they are not abiding by our laws and customs. They are a menace to our way of life. We need to lock them up.”        

The magistrates agreed. Paul and Silas were stripped, beaten, and thrown into jail. Only Paul and Silas were now the ones who wouldn’t shut up. Once in jail they began praying and singing. It was after midnight and they were making such a racket no one in the jail could get any sleep. Then suddenly there was an earthquake. The walls of the prison collapsed. The shackles fell off all the prisoners. Now it was the jailer who wouldn’t shut up. He wailed, “Everyone has escaped. The magistrates will have my job. They will rebuild the prison and make me the first occupant. Someone give me a sword. Let me end my life right now.”

Paul interrupted his rant. “We are all here.” The jailer looked around and realized no one had left. He was overwhelmed with relief. Looking at his battered prisoners with more than curiosity he asked, “How can I get what you have got?” Then he took the prisoners into his home.

Such a cast of characters: a woman screaming epitaphs, businessmen screaming for profits, a jailer screaming for his life, and Paul and Silas praying very loudly. So who was the subject of Paul’s prayers? At first glance the answer seems obvious. Paul and Silas had almost been beaten to death. They obviously were giving thanks just to be alive. Or were they? I think Paul and Silas were praying for the woman, the owners, the magistrate, the folks who beat them, and the jailer who imprisoned them.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s during the civil rights movement members of the cause spent a lot of time in jail. This was where the greatest demonstration of faith and resistance took place. Folks who signed up to march were not just taught how to peacefully resist. They were taught to pray loudly.  A favorite catchphrase that filtered between the cells was, “Pray like Paul and Silas”. Everyone knew what this meant. You didn’t pray for your release. You prayed for the police. You prayed for the person who had dragged you through the streets. You prayed for the children who had spit on you. You prayed for the jailer who turned the key to your cell. You prayed without ceasing for those who hated you. You prayed late into the night. You prayed long and hard. You refused to shut up.  Silent prayer might be good for the soul, but prayers that break the sound barrier rock the foundations of a corrupt society.

So how is your prayer life? Do you pray out loud? Do you pray at all? Do you pray for yourself? Do you pray for your friends? Do you pray for your enemies? Do you pray for injustices? Do you pray that things will just stay the same?

        What would have happened if Paul and Silas had never prayed? Would there have been an earthquake? Would there have been a conversion of the jailer? Who knows? A question like that is beyond my pay grade. But I can share this.  I like to think of prayer as a solitary light that disturbs my darkness. So should I pray louder and disturb the darkness of others? Does praying out loud liberate or infuriate?   I imagine the men of commerce just wanted Paul to shut up?  But what about the jailer? What about the woman who lost her voice? What did they desire to hear?

        Maybe prayer is more than a solitary light. Maybe prayer is the pulse of life. If prayer is our confirmation of God’s existence then doesn’t prayer become our initial connection with the rest of God’s creation? How will the rejected woman, or the jailer, and particularly our enemies hear us if we don’t pray loudly and joyfully, and without ceasing?

        I know what you are thinking. We are Presbyterians. We are God’s Chosen Frozen. We pray quietly, respectfully, humbly, reverently, or we don’t pray at all.

        Maybe that’s why women continue to be abused? Maybe that’s why too often commerce is chosen over morality? Maybe that’s why frequently the customs of society don’t reflect the principles of God? Can you imagine what might happen if we started praying Very Loudly For Our WORLD?

        It might start bringing down some walls of oppression.

        To God be the Glory. Amen