Holding Back

Presentation2
*Sermon preached on 23 Sep 2018, at First Christian Church of Hampton, VA.  Every place of ministry has left me with indelible memories of various souls, in this case Miss Sarah.  She was proof to never assume folks aren’t listening to sermons, even those sermons one doesn’t think are so great, and the work of the Spirit in them.  It is truly humbling.  That little congregation at Oxford, Kentucky, was amazing, and the best gift they gave to me as a student minister was their very clearly stated sense of purpose in their time – to help train ministers.  I learned so much from them and remain ever grateful for their love and faith.

Gospel of Mark 9:30-37 (New Revised Standard Version)

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it;  for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”  But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.  Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”  But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.  He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

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HO HUM

Back in Kentucky, during my student pastor days, every Sunday I preached at three congregations.  I had a 5-speed Volkswagen pickup truck that flew over those backcountry roads to get to community.

The first service was at 9, in an ancient congregation that dated to 1780.

Oxford was now in its third building, the first had been of logs, the second built of brick.  It had been torn down in the 1840s with its brick and mortar used to build a larger sanctuary yards away, facing the newer road through the village.

The congregation’s members had dispersed over the years, many to a nearby congregation, others elsewhere.  It had not helped to have a worship service at 9 a.m.  It was the only congregation I’ve ever known that sat in front.  Perhaps because that was where the heat was in winter, but I think it had a lot to do with their heart as well.  They wanted to learn.

Among them was Miss Sarah.

She was somewhere in her 80s.  A farmer’s widow, she had never learned to read and write.  It’s why most didn’t think this sweet lady was all that smart.  Then one Sunday, Miss Sarah did something I did not expect, she raised her hand in the middle of my sermon.  Miss Sarah had a question.

I stopped as she asked about something I had just said relating it to something I had said in a sermon three months earlier.  I was stunned…

Miss Sarah could not read and write, but she was interested in learning.  Unafraid to ask, there would be other times she would raise her hand to ask a question in the middle of one of my sermons.  I’d stop and answer, then go back into the sermon.  Some of my seminary classmates were horrified at the thought of interrupted sermons, but I absolutely loved Sarah’s mind and spirit.  In her, I saw a gentle and yet emboldened disciple of Jesus.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

However, the text stands as a witness that asking questions is not easy for us.  We hesitate.  Not wanting to offend.  Not wanting to be wrong.  Not wanting to look stupid.  Yet, discipleship happens amid questions, even if and when the answers are illusive, the search itself opens one to the movement of the Spirit.

FOR INSTANCE

Throughout the Gospel of Mark, it’s clear that the disciples struggle to ask questions.  Especially the tough questions.  Jesus said that he would be betrayed, he would be killed, and three days after having been killed he would rise from the dead, yet  – it’s said of the disciples : “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

They don’t understand this specific teaching, which is the very heart of the Incarnation.  One can almost hear the wheels turn in their minds, with the question: how is it possible for the Son of God to suffer and die, and why should this even happen?

Yet, they are silent.

It seems that the disciples throughout the Gospel of Mark are quite often confused…. they don’t “understand what he was saying.”  I get that.  I too sometimes find myself confused at times when I read certain scriptures, or puzzle over certain events or relationships.  You know, the ones we or others might throw upon a fast, trite, well-meaning and intended-to-be-helpful phrase – because otherwise, what would we say when things just don’t make sense?

If their silence and perhaps ours at times, points to a lack of understanding, sometimes the bigger problem is the unwillingness to ask the tough questions of Jesus.

So why don’t the disciples ask?

Is it merely that because they are a bunch of guys, so they aren’t going to stop and ask for directions?  Just like they won’t read the assembly instructions or the manual?!

It is because they don’t want to appear to be as confused as they are, unable to grasp the teachings of Jesus, in spite of all of his teaching?  After all, who wants to look confused or clueless?

Is it because the words of Jesus are just so profound, so deep, that the disciples simply just fear asking more of him?

Let’s face it, sometimes we ourselves do hold back our toughest questions.  We fear offending God.  We fear looking stupid.  We fear for a thousand other reasons.  So, the questions remain in our hearts and minds.  You know those questions.

Some are those big picture philosophical ones that may or may not touch upon some part of our own life experience, like “why do good people suffer, or why do people hurt each other, or why does evil sometimes appear to win?

Some are the more personal questions such as why was my back injured?  Or, so and so assaulted?  Or, a family member cutting another off for reasons that make no sense, if the reasons are even known at all?  The list is endless.

From the time we learn to speak, let’s face it, we have questions.  It’s how we learn in school.  It’s also how we learn in our faith.  And yet, the disciples hold back from asking about why God’s own son, the Messiah as Peter identified Jesus in the prior chapter of Mark, would be betrayed and killed.  Why would God set up such a world?  Why would this happen to their friend and teacher?

Yet, if they are silent in the face of such hard questions, what would we ask?  If you were Miss Sarah, like I started out talking about, and felt completely free to raise your hand, right now –

What kind of questions do you think the disciples might have been thinking and not asked in today’s text from Mark 9:30-37?  [PAUSE]

What questions might you be afraid to ask God?  [PAUSE]

What questions might you be afraid to ask at church, or wish you could ask?  [PAUSE]

SO WHAT?

A part of the “good news” of Jesus Christ, is that even when we don’t understand, when we don’t know, when we stay silent instead of asking what’s on our mind and in our heart – we are embraced every bit as much as the child Jesus picks up and holds.  For a child is after all, the ultimate symbol of not knowing, not understanding, immature and undeveloped – and yet embraced, by the One whose” perfect love casts out all fear.” [1 John 4:18]

Amen.

Owed Nothing, Given Everything

mark 7*Sermon preached on 09 Sep 2018, at First Christian Church of Hampton, VA.  I do think that much of what we are wrestling with in our society, so often  described along perhaps uncomfortable political lines, is where this text calls us to to perceive who and what the Table of the Lord really encompasses.  In so many ways, this nameless woman is like so many whose voices in our society have not been heard.  I encourage you to ponder it in the context of now, for the Word is ever relevant and prophetic.  Like any sermon, I raise questions with the hope you will seek answers.

Gospel of Mark 7:24-37 (New Revised Standard Version)

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre.  He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice,  but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.  Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.   He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”   But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”  So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.  Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.  They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him.  He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue.  Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”  And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.  Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.  They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

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INTRODUCTION

At the start of my first tour in the Navy, our little family lived out in Shonan Takatori, a community sandwiched between the cities of Yokosuka and Yokohama, Japan, about 10-15 minutes from our naval base at Yokosuka.

It took a bit of getting used to, all the cultural differences.  It was safe enough to leave the keys in the car, with a license plate starting with the English letter of Y identifying us as Ginjing… foreigners.  It was safe enough to leave the house unlocked and have no worries.  Well, except for one thing…

Julie stepped out of the bathroom one morning only to be greeted by a gentleman standing inside our house.  You see, just inside the door is the genkan, the small entry area in Japanese homes that’s a step lower than the floor of the home.  Tiled, it’s where the shoes come off, a barrier against dirt so as to not damage the tatami mats that cover the house floor.

That was the day we discovered that that little area is considered part of the sidewalk, open to anyone – delivery people, neighbors, complete strangers, unless one locks the door.

Yeah, Julie really liked that!  Not.

This memory struck me as I read the words from the Gospel, of what it’s like for when someone intrudes themselves into our space, into the sanctity our home.

We don’t generally embrace intrusions.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

Yet in the text this morning from Mark – it’s an intrusion that’s in play, one that’s both social and theological, and it comes on the heels of the previous chapter when Jesus made clear with regards purity before God – it’s the content of a person’s character which is of interest to God.  So the intrusion Jesus experienced will have something to say to us about the authentic boundaries of heaven – not merely the boundaries we might construct.

FOR INSTANCE

It’s not clear, given Mark’s typically sparse words, why Jesus was in what we now would call southern Lebanon… if it was just a break from the crowds or a transitional point that nodded to the expansion to whom Jesus Christ brings good news.

We do know Jesus was in a home, across the border from the Judean north country, apparently attempting to keep a low profile, all in vain.  His name and his healing works in that pre-channel news and social media era, had still apparently spread like the proverbial wildfire, even into non-Jewish areas.

We do know that Mark doesn’t say a word about the homeowner him or herself, only that Jesus is there, probably at table with his disciples, eating and chatting.  Then, this Syrophoenician woman comes right on in.  She didn’t stop at the entrance.  She is bold in action and word.

We do know that in the path of Christ that was unfolding – a sequence of events that would eventually culminate in the crucifixion, resurrection, and the sending forth of the disciples into all the nations – Jesus dealing with the dividing line of nations or of tribes that defined people in the sight of God, wasn’t yet on the agenda.  It didn’t matter.

We do know that in the reading of the Gospels, Jesus’s encounters with women were consistently defined by those who would not be pushed away… or shushed by others… but who were embraced by his compassion and honored for their faith.  It had never mattered as to their social standing as women, but now it was moving outside the Chosen People.

We do know that even though she was a Syrophoenician, due to Tyre’s proximity to Judea, a major port, she would have had exposure to Jewish customs.  It’s also fair to say, she would know she had no given authority to approach Jesus.  A Phoenician, a Gentile, a pagan, a woman, and with a daughter having an unclean spirit – let’s face it, she would likely have known that she had none of the religious, moral, and cultural credentials expected of those approaching a devout Jewish male, much less a rabbi and one of such renown.

We do know that she was a nobody in a sense.  Nothing is said about her social standing, other than she was a single mother.  We don’t even know her name, only that she entered a home without an invite, fell down and began to beg Jesus to heal her daughter.  She doesn’t stop with a single plea, as the present tense of the verb “Beg” conveys an ongoing action.  She has no quit in her.

We do know that she is a mother on a mission.  Saying “No” won’t cause her to walk away.  It’s as if she is the embodiment of a parable Jesus used to speak of the “need to pray always and not to lose heart,” for in Luke 18 he told the tale of how

“In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.  In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’  For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’  And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says.  And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?  Will he delay long in helping them?  I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

It sure seems a bit familiar as we wrestle with today’s text from Mark, doesn’t it?  Maybe that’s why Jesus’ response can seem so stunning.  These days Twitter would have been aflame upon hearing such words, when he says:  Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

As one author notes, “On the surface, this appears to be an insult.  We are a canine-loving society, but in New Testament times most dogs were scavengers – wild, dirty, uncouth in every way.  Their society was not canine-loving, and to call someone a dog was a terrible insult.  In Jesus’ day the Jews often called the Gentiles dogs because they were ‘unclean.’  Is what Jesus says to her just an insult, then?  No, it’s a parable…  One key to understanding it is the very unusual word Jesus uses for ‘dogs’ here.  He uses a diminutive form, a word that really means “puppies.”  Remember, the woman is a mother.  Jesus is saying to her, ‘You know how families eat: First the children eat at the table, and afterward their pets eat too.  It is not right to violate that order.  The puppies must not eat food from the table before the children do.’”

As Keller continues, “If we go to Matthew’s account of this incident, he gives us a slightly longer version of Jesus’s answer in which Jesus explains his meaning:  ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.’  Jesus concentrated his ministry on Israel, for all sorts of reasons.  He was sent to show Israel that he was the fulfillment of all Scripture’s promises, the fulfillment of all the prophets, priests, and kings, the fulfillment of the temple.  But after he was resurrected, he immediately said to the disciples, ‘Go to all the nations.’  His words, then, are not the insult they appear to be.  What he’s saying to the Syrophoenician woman is, ‘Please understand, there’s an order here.  I’m going to Israel first, then the Gentiles (the other nations) later.’”

She’s a mom and when a child’s involved, I don’t know a mother who is all that interested in the big theological picture of God’s plan for the world – when she’s worried about a sick child.

She’s a mom, and her child IS her world.

Mark adds how the mother is saying to Jesus, Yes, Lord, but the puppies eat from that table too, and I’m here for mine.”

She’s a mom who understands that she isn’t in the sequence of priorities, by birth or by faith.  I think the sense of what she is saying is “I may not have a place at the table – but there’s more than enough on that table for everyone in the world, and I need mine now.”  She’s not saying, “Lord, give me what I deserve on the basis of my goodness,” instead she is saying, “Give me what I don’t deserve on the basis of your goodness, and I need it now.”

Let me repeat that, “Give me what I don’t deserve on the basis of YOUR goodness.”  That sounds a whole lot like grace, doesn’t it?

She’s a mom who recognizes she isn’t entitled to a place at the table by accident of birth as much as anything else.  She isn’t standing on rights, or dignity, or goodness.  She’s standing on her “rightless assertiveness,” as Keller puts it, even as she asserts the need she brings to Jesus.

She’s a mom and much more, amid a Jacob-like verbal wrestling with our Lord, holding her ground with someone who is far more than a rabbi alone.  I like how one commentator elegantly puts it:

“Her words contain as much theological insight as they do wit or even humility.  It appears she recognizes — somehow — a certain abundance about the things Jesus is up to. ‘Go ahead, children, eat all you want.  But what if your table can’t contain all the food Jesus brings?  The excess must therefore start spilling to the floor — even now.”’ [Skinner]

When I flipped the page of an old commentary of my Dad’s and opened it to the version of this miracle/parable story as in Matthew, a slip of paper tumbled out.  A narrow slip, which is what my Dad wrote his sermon notes on, in his nearly illegible handwriting Dad wrote:  “I never cease to be amazed by Jesus’ wonderful gift of talking with the people he encountered in various places.”

It’s easy to miss that in this exchange, as we contemplate “rights” from the perspective of our society which has so elevated personal rights at the expense of social responsiveness and responsibility.  Yet, Jesus did not dismiss her.  He stayed in the conversation, and in this exchange the teachable moment becomes ours as well.  Dad was onto something: Jesus talked WITH her, not at her.

In an age when too many are still held back, treated as socially inferior, religiously marginalized, and politically unequal, it’s here in the Gospel of Mark that a nameless woman who is all of those things becomes the FIRST to understand a parable of Jesus.  It’s the nameless who grasps the deeper understanding.  Jesus leaves none of us in unfilled hope, still a beggar, but seats us at the table and claims us too as God’s beloved children… children from every tribe and language and nation.  As it’s been noted, “Even crumbs from the table would be enough for our healing and salvation.  But Jesus has given more than enough.  He sets an abundant, life-giving feast for all.”  [Johnson]

This is the table he asks us to set, as disciples.

Having not been there in that earlier exchange in Judea, Mark seems to lift up the anonymous woman as inexplicably understanding the implications of what Jesus announced in Mark 7:14-23… that everyone really is in the same boat as to what makes one defiled.  Therefore, why should any have to wait to participate in the blessings made possible through the advent of the Christ?

SO WHAT?

So it’s not about merit.  It’s not about standing.  It IS that she listens to Jesus as much as he listens to her.

Amid that listening, as it’s been observed, “It is only until you realize that you have no leverage in your position before God that you will finally begin to hear and understand His voice and call on your life – just like the Gentile woman who had nothing to offer Jesus–to lean on His grace alone.”

So if we are left with answers, we are also left with questions to wrestle with, as followers of Jesus hearing the words of Mark today…

How would we hear this encounter today between Jesus and an unnamed person who is all the things that challenge an age which has seen misogyny, nationalism, racism, and xenophobia move center stage in our own land?

How might we hear it when, let’s face it, most of us here come from a place of privilege simply by accident of the color of our skin, in a time when so many of the same seem overcome with fear and resentment – falsely believing there isn’t enough on the table for all to be fed with the abundance of our nation?

How might we hear it when others’ frustrations, with the too-long deferred “better days” in our society, bubble up and they don’t simply say, but instead proclaim, that it isn’t enough to be satisfied with crumbs… and demand an equal seat at the table?

How might we hear such questions as those used to having a place at the table – when we, as people of faith, are called to be the salt that flavors the world – discover the Kingdom’s truth: none of us has any more right or privilege.  We all come as beggars to the table and it’s solely by the grace of God that we are fed – and that the table is far more spacious and far more abundant that we can possibly image?

How, might we place ourselves in this encounter, one that precedes the feeding of 4,000 by Jesus?

How might the miracle take place now?  And here’s a hint: It is not simply about the feast nor limited to the confines of the table!

Amen.

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Pastor’s Notes: Timothy Keller, Jesus the King: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God.  Penguin Books, 2013.  Elizabeth Johnson, “Commentary on Mark 7:24-37.” 09 Sep 2018, accessed on 03 Sep 2018 at: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3761  Matt Skinner, “Commentary on Mark 7:24-37.”  09 Sep 2012, accessed on 03 Sep 2018 at: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1382

As for Me

joshua-24-15-bible-verse-FacebookCovers*Sermon preached on 26 Aug 2018, at First Christian Church of Hampton, VA.  Having a singular perspective, a way of “resetting” oneself amid a rather challenging world, I have long found “As for me and my house” to be a critical perspective, a phrase that centers my ethics in a world where so much is “off the rails.”  So much we cannot control, but we do have a say over us… if we are to be what the Old Testament calls “the faithful remnant” or the New Testament refers to as “the leaven in the lump.”  If we are to indeed be a people of hope, this is a grounding point as to who WE choose to be, not who others would be, or society would be.  The sermon is offered for your reflection and inner dialogue.  -Vinson

Joshua 24:1, 14-18 (New Revised Standard Version)

Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God.
Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LordNow if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”  Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”

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INTRODUCTION

In the past few weeks (Well, except for last Sunday when I was one of y’all sitting in the pew listening to a dear friend preach in my place), we’ve talked about being intentional in having select friends be not just wise counsel, but also empowered to speak truth when we most need to hear it.  We’ve also talked about having certain touchstones in our lives, to give us our bearings.  Now we come to this passage from the Book of Joshua, to hear its wisdom across the centuries to us as followers of Jesus.

At 110 years of age, Joshua is ready to rest from his labors, and so he calls the tribes to meet at Shechem for a final word from him.

It is here that Joshua recounts the generations who had gone before them, each having discovered the calling of the Lord and experienced His care for His people.

He mentions Abraham who was called forth, leaving his father and the many gods of Babylon behind him – for a promise from God, one that would make a barren couple the parents of an entire nation in a land bequeathed to them by God.  It was at this place that God confirmed his covenant with Abraham and the land of Israel.

He mentions Jacob, his grandson, who had joined his son Joseph in Egypt ensuring the family’s survival amid an extended famine.

He mentions Moses, who arose after a few centuries has passed and Israel had developed into 12 tribes, who were feared for their numbers and found themselves enslaved.  Freed by God’s hand and led to the border of their new life.

Having seen that generation pass from the Earth, Joshua had become their warrior/leader, and now, the land that would be known as Israel lay in their hands — with each of the twelve tribes given their portion.  It’s a pivotal moment for the Israelites.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

Suddenly, so much has been delivered to them: cities they did not build, vineyards and olive orchards they did not plant.  Their land, spoken of as flowing with milk and honey, is indeed a place of promise.

Yet… this land of extravagant abundance and the comfort of plenty had been spoken of by Moses as both seductive and dangerous.  There is the potential for Israel to be seduced into forgetting its calling and its character, which points to the unsteady character of the people themselves.

There are alternative gods in this good land.

The people must choose wisely.

FOR INSTANCE

Joshua takes the first step.

In that remarkable turn of words he says, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”  He throws down the challenge.  He and his household have chosen covenantal life with the God who gives both the land and the commandments, even as he recognizes there are other options, other gods, other ways of living that confront the Israelites.

It is about identity at the core, an identity that they must look at full in the face, even as we must.

It is such an identity that will determine passions and loyalties – the kind that define a faith community… and what kind of society they will strive for that best reflects the life-giving community God intends for humanity.

The people respond, ready to echo Joshua’s choice.  They can rattle off the litany as well as Joshua, of how God has blessed the people over the centuries – protecting, guiding, nurturing them.  Some of them might even be more eloquent with the verbiage.

But here’s the crux of the matter.  It isn’t enough to be able to rattle off the history, and be grateful.  It isn’t enough to recite from memory an affirmation of faith or something like the Lord’s Prayer.  It isn’t enough to show up at the gathering.  In a land in which there are alternative gods, it’s not a superficial commitment that God seeks.  It’s not a relationship of convenience; it’s an “all in” – from God, from us.  That’s how healthy relationships prosper – for the heart matters.

But, if we read between the lines, it seems that Joshua’s suspicious they want to have it both ways, to possess both “God and mammon” as Jesus would later put it in the 6th chapter of Matthew – enjoying the fulfillment of God’s promises while simultaneously accepting the self-serving gifts of the Canaanite gods.

It doesn’t work that way,

Joshua rejects their first pledge of loyalty, but they come back at him with resolve, saying to the effect: “No, we really mean it!”

By the time the negotiating is over, they will have promised to serve God two more times, with the 3-fold affirmation to serve God followed by an official covenant-making ceremony, with the writing down of the words and setting up a witness stone – “for he is our God,” they have said, defining the relationship as both personal and communal.

Now, it’s easy to ask what does this have to do with us?

The pantheon of gods that the Canaanites and others served are long gone.  Outside of the Bible and the realm of archeology, their names are forgotten by all.

True.  Yet the challenge of their nature remains just as seductive now as then, to those who would follow after our Lord God.  Those gods, whether of the harvest, or lust, or whatever else, were about oneself – gods of transactional relationships, of quid pro quo: if I do this, then I expect you to do that.

Right now, right here in our society — one does not have to look far to see that kind of thought process and behavior.  It permeates our politics of today.  It permeates our airwaves and our internet.  It shows up at work, at home, and out and about.  It is oh so tempting, and if those ancient gods are no longer spoken of – a case can be made that people are still confronted with choosing between that way of thinking and behaving – and the way of God.

Walter Bruggeman, a one-time professor of mine, noted that — with God, it “is ‘all or nothing,’ with no casual allowance for accommodation.  What is at issue is a jealous God who is committed to neighborly justice and the organization of the economy for the sake of the weak and vulnerable…. the other gods, the totems of agricultural self-sufficiency, do not require such neighborly passion… a decision for the ‘other gods’ leads inevitably to socio-economic exploitation, the accumulation of wealth at the expense of neighbors.  Such a ‘religion’ without commitment to social justice will eventuate in communities of economic failure…”

The man is brilliant, but let me unpack that in the terms we might recognize.

We, live in a time when are witnessing a rapidly growing economic disparity in our society between rich and poor – with the poorer becoming even more so and wealth concentrating at nearly unfathomable rates among the richest.

We live in an era when a long-stagnant minimum wage — inadequate by any standard — falls further behind – and too few care.

We live in a time of young people saddled with college debt at unreasonable interest rates – degrees not necessarily paying off anymore as they once did.

We live in a day when a nation made up of the descendants of immigrants daily witnesses the disparagement of others who would seek refuge here and — too many choose to JOIN IN!

We live in a time when we see TV evangelists insisting that God has told them to buy a $40 million plane so they don’t have to sit with others in “coach,” or hawking “floating apocalypse survival buckets.”

We live in a time when entire families live on the street or in their cars, veterans with health issues cannot find housing, and retirees watch every safety net they thought they’d built for their final years ripped out from underneath them for the claimed purposes of austerity secondary to the top tax rates being reduced to the lowest levels in decades.

So yes, the perspective seen in the worship of the false gods of Canaan is still very much present and ultimately destructive – the perspective of selfishness has been around since the sentiment of Cain when he responded to God saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Well, as a matter of fact… yes, we most certainly ARE our brother’s keeper — our sister’s keeper too!

The covenant made at Shechem, — and MORE importantly, the covenant made in the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ — comes with the understanding that we don’t get to privatize our sense of justice to merely what benefits us, but — as a community — ARE REQUIRED to consider what benefits others.

Like the retelling of history at Shechem, we may recollect of church history that every 500 hundred years, plus or minus a century, there is a major transition.  Or, as my sister puts it, the church has a great garage sale, ridding itself of what is no longer of use, making space for the new – as it reexamines itself as disciples of Jesus.

The followers of Jesus that became known as the “church,” spread the message of Jesus across the Roman Empire, while the Jesus movement remained oppressed for almost as long as the Israelites were by the Egyptians.  The second epoch saw a series of church councils codifying the New Testament along with core beliefs of the church, while the third witnessed the division of the church into two large parts, the Catholics and smaller bodies in the West, and the Orthodox in the East.  The fourth epoch was the Protestant Reformation, which coincided with the creation of the printing press distributing the Bible to the larger population, gone the days of the few Bibles being chained to the pulpit, with Bible teaching taking front and center stage.

But now we are at the cusp of the fifth epoch, one whose changes will not likely be clear for some time.   We know there is an increase of those identifying as having no faith or some faith.  It isn’t merely because of the rise of secularism, but because folks want to see Jesus – in his followers, in authentic, caring, ethical, God-centered lives that are much more interested in the DOING – not simply the retelling — of the Gospel.

In a sense, we stand at our own form of Shechem, like the folks back then, preparing to enter “a new land” – a new landscape different from what we’ve known.  It is an anxious time, both marvelous for some changes we see and frightening for others.  We live in a society far more diverse than we acknowledged before, with more being added to the mix.

SO WHAT?

Knowing the promise fulfilled in Jesus, knowing the journey of God’s people and our own story – this ancient text from Joshua invites decision and forces us to wrestle with it.

It is a decision not just about our own life with God — for it is inseparable from our life in relationship to one another – challenging us to more closely examine Jesus and his words and their authentic application.

If this is true, how would we then hear and how would we live the words of Jesus in Matthew 22:37-39, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Amen.

Touchstone for Life: On Having Counsel

12aug2018 cover*Sermon preached on 12 Aug 2018, at First Christian Church of Hampton, VA.  I have been blessed in life to have wise counsel along the way.  Turning that into an intentional spiritual practice  to ensure  one’s own spiritual health through accountability relationships is something we don’t do well in addressing as church.  Like many things, sermons don’t wrap things up… but are intended to just get one to thinking.  It really isn’t the material things that bless us, it is having key voices in our lives.  – Vinson

1 Kings 19:1-15 (New Revised Standard Version)

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword.  Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.”  Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.  But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”  Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.”  He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lordcame a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”  He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.  At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.  Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”  He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.  When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.  Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”  Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.

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INTRODUCTION

Every summer growing up, it was off to the races when it came to my father taking a much-needed break, as a pastor.

Having left his hometown of Coral Gables, Florida, from the time he graduated from seminary in 1965 until his death in 1981, Dad took all of his vacation time in one lump.  We’d sprint across the country to see our extended family…. the first stop being in the southern tip of Florida.

The drive, mostly in pre-interstate days, meant camping our way across in various national parks, and driving way past dark in order to have some time in the daylight at the various stops.  It also mean Dad driving somewhere in the 80 to 90 mph range in the western states before there were speed limits.

When we lived out in Oregon, we’d make the more than 3,500-mile trip in four and a half days, including all the stops… no mean feat with four kids!

When we lived in other states, the drive might be as short as 1,100 miles, in whatever station wagon we had not yet worn out.  However, once we made it to Coral Gables, after quickly dropping off the camper at my Mom’s parents’ home, we would always head over to see Luther Cole.  Each and every trip, though, as we arrived on Luther’s doorstep, I watched my normally very reserved father become an altogether different man – for Dad would absolutely light up in Luther’s presence.  The pastor of my folks’ home church, I assumed he was more – that Luther was also a relative.

I finally asked my Mom when I was 10 or 11.  It turned out, Luther was of no relation at all!  Except of the heart.

As much as the camping and visiting my grandparents in South Florida and the mountains of North Carolina made for a fun summer for us kids, it was seeing Luther that just seemed to ground and refresh Dad.  Reconnecting to a church which he had gone off on his own to attend at the ripe age of six, and having known only two pastors during a 30-year span, Luther had made the most impact on my father.  Not until he reached Luther Cole did my Dad truly relax and begin to enjoy and revel in his vacation.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

Last week we talked about the need to keep people in our lives to help us stay accountable.  This week the lectionary pulls us off into another aspect of our spiritual wellness as we each have within us the need to somehow reconnect with the ground of our faith as disciples in this ministry of all believers, to which each are called – according to our gifts.

FOR INSTANCE

In looking at what has transpired, it’s clear Elijah is exhausted.  While successful in defeating the priests of the false god Baal at Mt. Carmel, he has made a powerful enemy in King Ahab and Queen Jezebel.

The spiritual warfare in which he has been engaged has taken a toll, so much so he is clearly depressed and appears to have suicidal ideations.  Here, the angels of the Lord pull him aside to ensure he has food and drink, commanding him to partake.

When folks are down, let’s face it, eating a decent meal and ensuring proper hydration, tend to fall by the wayside, as does quality sleep.  It’s no small wonder there is the old military adage about “3 hots and a cot” as a steps towards resetting oneself.  Invariably, I have nearly every time found that these are absent in those who rapidly slipping down into such depths of depression.

So, the angels lift up that need, even waking Elijah after he has had a decent sleep, to eat and drink yet again.  The first meal was to replenish him, the second meal was to strengthen him for the long walk ahead.

It all makes sense.

Elijah is now sent on a long trip.  Not by choice, but for spiritual need.  Not a vacation, but every bit a reset to get his bearings for life ahead.

And what a long walk it is; 95 miles as the crow flies, to Mt. Horeb… otherwise known as Mt. Sinai.

With the court searching for him to end his life, and few straight paths in the terrain – I can imagine that it ended up being perhaps twice the distance, maybe more, as is compelled to travel from the extreme northern reaches to the extreme southern reaches of the former kingdom David had forged out of the 12 tribes, now broken into northern and southern kingdoms.  But still, it seems like a pretty slow pace for 40 days journey.  One has to wonder if Elijah sat down a lot, got distracted, or just avoided roads altogether.

Mt. Horeb is the touchstone for Israel at the time, at this time in a much deeper way than the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

It had been ever since Moses first turned aside to see a bush that burned but was not consumed, only to hear the voice of God commanding him to take off the shoes from his feet – as he was standing on holy ground.

It had been the place that had been returned to by Moses, with the newly freed Israelites, and thus for Elijah…

…it was a place of remembering the Covenant made between God and the Israelites rescued from their Egyptian slavery.

…it was a place that also knew brokenness, literally and figuratively, in the destruction of the first tablets of the 10 Commandments upon Moses seeing the Israelites reverting to pagan practices when he had come down from his long encounter with God.

…and it was a place where, in Exodus 33:21, God puts Moses into a deep cleft in the rock, something of a cave, covering him as He passes by so he does not look upon the face of God even as he experiences the power of His glory.

As is typical, some nuances get lost in the translation from Hebrew to English, so let me lift up a couple of things that I’ve noticed.  In looking deeply in to the Hebrew of the original text, the cave to which Elijah is sent is THE cave, not merely “a” cave.  I think this is no accident of words, but points to this connection to Moses’ encounter.

But THE cave is not the place where he, nor we – live.  It is the touchstone, the place that grounds – but not the place where life and ministry are lived out.  No surprise then, that Elijah isn’t given a divine word to share, but instead a question for himself.

“What are you doing here, Elijah?” God asks.  [vs. 9]

The question is repeated, as is Elijah’s answer.

Despite the emphasis on Elijah’s extreme zeal for the Lord, Israel has abandoned God’s covenant, destroyed God’s altars, and killed God’s prophets.

Elijah claims to be the only one left and quickly add he is now public enemy number one.  It is somewhat a pitiful word on his part:  “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” [vs. 10 & 14]

The first question leads to Elijah moving to the opening of the cave, and the second leads to the divine command that Elijah should go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, because the Lord was about to pass by.  A dramatic show follows; everything but fireworks.  The kind of stuff that would have given the fickle people of Israel a real excitement.

We all like to be impressed, but if one thinks deeply about this… it is such things move the focus to us and away from God, which is why God cannot be discerned in any of these events.  Such a “show” isn’t how life will work, if one is to be spiritually healthy.

Then, there is what is said to be the “sound of sheer silence” [vs. 12] as the New Revised Standard Version translates it.

This is the moment when all the world’s confusing noise, stops…

Think of what it’s like when there’s nothing competing for our attention… Distractions disappear… There is nothing to filter out, and in that quiet we listen more intently without even having to think about it.

It reminds me of what Julie once told me of how when, as a substitute teacher, she had lost her voice one day.  The class which had been hard to control, suddenly shifted.  Her voice was so soft, they stopped their chatter, so they wouldn’t miss what she was saying.

Quiet.  Peace.  Amid that, the thinnest of sounds, the One whose voice we most need to hear – stands out.

Elijah’s encounter echoes that of Moses centuries before, except it’s not the hand of God that covers his sight, it’s his mantle.  It echoes that earlier encounter as the sound in the quiet reminds one of when God first spoke to Moses identifying himself by saying “I am” – a word that we may read as Yahweh.  In the Hebrew its pronunciation is, as my Old Testament professor noted – like the sound of a breath – the very breath that God placed in humanity at the moment of our creation.

The ancient hearers of I Kings would have picked up on these things, and that Elijah’s prayer doesn’t exactly get answered the way he perhaps hoped.  He has work to do, but Elijah will not be the last prophet, but the trainer for others – as he would call forth Elisha and at least 50 others, to become his students, and to whom he will one day turn over his work.

The call is bigger than Elijah, after all it’s God’s work.  It is no different for us, regardless of our role within the work of the Kingdom of God, we know in Christ our Lord.

SO WHAT?

Perhaps that is the liberating word for us, the touchstone, we forget is already present within us – perhaps sometimes, until life pushes us to a moment of such clarity.

It’s not found in a cave, nor is it a great wind passing by the entrance to our lives.

It’s not found at a mountain, nor an earthquake shaking the ground we stand upon.

It’s not found even in a church building, nor a great fire burning away the superfluous stuff of life.

No, it is in the sheer silence, the kind that is found in a trusting RELATIONSHIP, the one we know in Jesus Christ.  Hopefully, the kind that other lives and places have pointed us toward.  The kind that has drawn me to words written two years ago by another minister, John Pavlovitz.

Says he in words that have become only more true….

… these are hard times, but they don’t require an even harder people.  In days like these we need a faith that makes us softer.

This softness,” he says, “is not the opposite of conviction or the absence of principle.  It is the quiet confidence that doesn’t require anyone else to mirror them.  This softness is the sacred, supple core of the peacemakers, the forgivers, the healers.  It is the holy place that has always been where love does what love only love can do.

A faith that softens us will always make us more like Jesus.  His was a soft soul.

You can tell this because the afflicted sought him out. The broken reached out their hands to him.  The wounded never recoiled from his embrace.  People knew that their pain was safe in his presence.

From the hard places and the hard people, he was a refuge.  His softness was sanctuary to which they ran….  the Church as a living, breathing, feeling body, will need to hold on to its flesh so that it can be (such a) gentle, loving response to all the hardness around it.”

It is to

…hold onto to the pliable heart of Jesus in the middle of very difficult days… to not become stone in hard times… (to pray) for a faith that will make me softer.

Amen.