We come to prepare the way:
The way for Christ.
We come to hear the good news:
the hope of Christ.
We come longing for divine hope
to enter our hearts, to enter our world.
We come to cry out together in the wilderness:
“Oh, kingdom of heaven come near.”
We come to be part of the light–
the light that shines in the darkness.
We come to prepare the way:
The post below is excerpted from a longer sermon on 2 Kings 7.
I know our primary reading is about Elisha, but first I want to share these words from 1 Peter. I want you to not only hear them, but to know them and to hold them and to carry them with you back out into the world:
Even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated.
That’s really what fuels so much of the racist, bigoted comments and reactions. Fear. Fear of the other. Fear of forces beyond our control. Fear of death.
This is not a new phenomenon–basically good people acting in violent, hateful ways because of fear. The Bible is full of fearful people. (And angels running around scaring people half to death and then saying, “Do not be afraid.”)
Fear runs rampant in this story from 2 Kings as well, driving the actions of most of the characters—the king, the officer, the Israelites, the Arameans. But there are a few characters here who do not act out of fear.
The first, of course, is Elisha. He never seems to have any fear, even when he explains to the elders that the king has “sent someone to take off my head.” His fearlessness is rooted in his role as prophet, his heroic status, his deep connection to God.
Frankly, Elisha is beyond me, because I am not a heroic figure; I’m not a fiery prophet; I cannot claim to never experience fear. So I’m more interested in the other fear-defying characters—not Elisha who never has fear, but the four lepers who overcome their fear in order to live their lives.
I realize that the fearlessness of the lepers is not as theologically astute as Elisha’s fearlessness. They do not walk into the Aramean camp because of their faith in Divine protection or a sense of prophetic compulsion. Their motives are purely rational. There they are, starving to death outside the city walls and they assess their situation.
If we stay out here, we will die for sure.
If we force our way inside the city walls, we will die for sure.
If we go to the Aramean camp and surrender, we might die. Or we might not.
And so, because they truly have nothing to lose, they go to the Aramean camp . . . and find it deserted. I’m not sure about their motivation for telling the king about the deserted camp. Is it because they realize that it is morally wrong to keep this good news to themselves? Or because they fear they will get in trouble for withholding information if and when the king finds out?
Whatever the reason, the four lepers saved the lives of an entire city (except for the poor, trampled officer). They saved lives because they were able to overcome their fear—to step back from the overwhelming tragedy of their situation and consider whether or not there might be a better way, something they could do besides sit there and die.
Do not fear what they fear and do not be intimidated.
Sometimes your fearlessness will come from a deep and holy place; you will know that you are walking with God–who will provide for you and protect you no matter how great the threats. That is true, and sometimes you will know it.
Sometimes your fearlessness will come from desperation. You will be able to do the thing that is brave and good and right because it’s all you can figure to do; it’s the only option you see that does not lead to death.
Whatever fearlessness comes to you, grab ahold of it. Follow the fearlessness instead of the fear.
Your Muslim friends and neighbors are not plotting terrorist attacks. The long-suffering Syrian refugees are not coming to the US to blow up our buildings. Migrants from Mexico will not take all “our” jobs. Gay and lesbian Christians and the people who love them and the pastors who marry them will not bring about the downfall of the church.
And even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed.
Do not fear what they fear. Do not be intimidated.
Sunday morning at the beginning of worship, I lit our peace lamp and then I lit four white candles: for Paris, Beirut, Aleppo, and Baghdad.
I almost skipped the candle-lighting altogether because I couldn’t figure out how many candles to light. Beirut and Paris, of course. Those were horrific terrorist attacks among people who don’t experience such things on a regular basis; places where people expect to go about their daily lives without encountering a suicide bomber or masked gunman. I definitely wanted to light candles for the 41 killed in Beirut, the 129 in Paris.
What about Aleppo and Baghdad? They had terrorist attacks last week, too. But, sadly, I barely paid attention. The words “bombing” and “attack” and “violence” and “dead” are so often heard in connection with these cities that those reports can feel more like a recurring news script than a real-life event. Still, the fact that those attacks were expected doesn’t make them any less tragic. It doesn’t make the 13 killed in Aleppo and the 26 killed in Baghdad any less dead. So Aleppo and Baghdad got candles too.
It was hard to stop with the candle-lighting.
I wanted to light a candle for the Palestinian family whose house was destroyed by the Israeli military because one of the men of the family was accused of killing an Israeli soldier.
And I wanted to light a candle for the dead Israeli soldier.
I wanted to light a candle for people in the cities of the United States killed by guns—those involved with gangs, those caught in the crossfire, those shot by police, those who are police.
I wanted to light a candle for the death-dealing racism of our culture.
I wanted to light a candle for the transgender people who are attacked physically and emotionally every day.
I wanted to light a candle for the 459 civilians killed by US airstrikes as part of our “war on terror”—especially for the 100 children.
I wanted to light candles for the tragedies we all knew would come in the wake of the Paris attacks—for the Muslims threatened and yelled at and physically assaulted; for Syrians killed as the French warplanes “pound” ISIS; for the refugees who are shut out and put down because of our misplaced fear.
I wanted to light candles for all of them. And I knew I couldn’t. We don’t have enough candles in our church cupboard. We don’t have enough time in our worship service.
It’s an odd thing, really, to light a candle in the face of death. It’s a small act. It’s almost a nothing act. Almost. But not quite. Lighting a candle is something. Which, however inadequate, is at least better than nothing.
And for me, for many of us, lighting a candle is prayer. And prayer opens our hearts and our minds to God, which means that our hearts and our minds are more open to each other. Which is something, too.
This morning my devotional reading was Matthew 1; a chapter I know well and am likely to breeze through. But this time I was caught by the angel’s words to Joseph: “You are to name [Mary’s son] Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
He will save his people from their sins.
We are all God’s people. And our sins are killing us—physically and spiritually.
In the midst of so much death–in the midst of such sorrow, such tragedy, such brokenness—it is hard to know how many candles to light. It is hard to know what prayers to pray. It is hard to know what steps to take. It is hard to believe in the promise of salvation.
But here is what grace means for me right now: One candle is enough . . . or four . . . or sixty. Any prayer will do—art, music, words, groans, silence. Even one step will get us to a new place, eventually.
And the promise is real even when we can’t believe it.
In today’s scripture reading, Elisha is referred to as a “man of God” eight times—that’s twice as often as he is referred to by name. I will admit that I’m not quite as convinced as the Shunammite woman that Elisha is a man of God. There are points in this story where he makes me furious and I want to yell across the centuries: “Elisha, you are not a man of God!”1
For example, when he goes into the room that this woman has had built onto her house just for him, lays on the bed she has furnished for him, and says to his personal servant, “Call the Shunammite woman.” . . . Really? “The Shunammite woman?” This lady has built him a room, bought him a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp–and he doesn’t even bother to learn her name?
And for some reason she has to come to him. He just lays there on the bed, summoning her–this woman who is probably cleaning the house or cooking supper or doing something more productive than laying on the bed. This woman has given him so much—and he can’t be bothered to go find her himself, he doesn’t even know her name; he doesn’t even know that she doesn’t have a son! “Elisha, you are not a man of God!”
As we near the end of our series on the prophets Elijah and Elisha, I am deeply aware that the problems with Elisha as a man of God go far beyond his egotism and poor bedside manner. Remember the story where he calls out a bear to maul 42 boys who have taunted him and called him “baldy”? The entire narrative of Elijah and Elisha is filled with the prophets’ proclamations and enactments of violence against their enemies.
Violence is, tragically, what happens when certain people consider themselves to be people of God while refusing to acknowledge that those around them are also people of God.
What happens is six coordinated attacks in Paris kill 129 people. What happens is two suicide bombings in Beirut kill 41 people. What happens is Syrian rebels in Aleppo kill 13 people and take 7 more hostage. What happens is roadside bombs and suicide bombs in Baghdad kill 26 people.
Just this week—that’s what happened. Because some people consider themselves and their kind to be God’s chosen, while others are expendable. Because some people divide the world into “people of God” (us) and “people not of God” (them).
While Elisha is the one with the title “man of God” in this text, I would argue that the Shunammite woman shows more godly qualities. She is generous and hospitable with her wealth and social standing. She is a fierce mother. And perhaps the most godly quality possessed by the Shunammite woman—and the one most needed in our world today–is her willingness to identify the other as a “man of God.”
Elisha, who is directly identified as being a man of God, still acts in some pretty ungodly ways. The Shunammite woman, who never receives the title “woman of God,” is the one who offers holy hospitality. The one who welcomes the other in peace and love. The difference, then, doesn’t seem to be about who gets called a “person of God.” The difference seems to be about who recognizes the other as a “person of God.”
It is because she identifies Elisha as a man of God that the Shunammite builds him a room and provides him with a table and bed and lamp. What if, instead of telling Gehazi to go get “the Shunammite woman,” Elisha had sent him to get “the woman of God”? For one thing, he might have gotten off his backside and gone to find her himself. He might have talked with her and learned about her life. If he had recognized her as a woman of God, perhaps he would have been as generous with her as she was with him.
What if those who committed terrorist acts this past week had not been so quick to claim the identity of God’s chosen exclusively for themselves, but had instead recognized that the people of Paris and Beirut and Aleppo and Baghdad are all people of God?
And what if we all, now, recognize that Muslims are not the enemy; refugees and immigrants are not the enemy; even the enemy is not the enemy?
What if we all take a cue from the Shunammite woman, labeling each other as “people of God”? And then act like it is true. Because it is.
1The following examples of Elisha’s shortcomings are discussed in the article “A Prophet Tested: Elisha, the Great Woman of Shunem, and the Story’s Double Message” by Yairah Amit. (Biblical Interpretation, January 1, 2003)
I wrote this call to worship to accompany our gathering hymn for the month, “Open my Ears, Open my Eyes” (for you Mennonites, that’s Sing the Story #5.) We are still in our Elijah/Elisha sermon series.
Whispering God, the noise of the world is loud.
Open our ears to your still, small, voice.
God of revelation, the darkness of the world threatens.
Open our eyes to the light of your presence.
God of abundance, we cling tightly to so many things.
Open our hands in generosity and joy.
God of all people, we feel the fear of those who are “other.”
Open our arms to the stranger and the enemy.
God of mystery, we want so desperately to understand you.
Open our minds to the depths of your truth.
Creating God, we long to know your presence.
Open our hearts to receive your love.
[This reflection is excerpted from an earlier sermon.]
We have before us in the text this morning a very odd scene. There is a woman, probably in her thirties. She comes to the shrine at Shiloh—the most holy of Jewish worship sites in these pre-temple days; the place where the sacred Ark of the Covenant was kept. But she does not approach this holy sanctuary in a reverent, respectable manner. She is out of control with grief. She is wailing and flailing and mumbling to herself. Her lips are moving, but the listening priest can hear no words, only deep groans and ecstatic shrieks.
I imagine that this scene makes us almost as uncomfortable as it made Eli. If someone were to pray like that in our building, we too might think she was drunk. Hannah’s prayer is simply not proper. She is far too bold before God. Far too emotional.
We are much more comfortable with the way Jesus taught us to pray. Head bowed, eyes closed. (O.K., that’s not actually in the Bible, but we know that’s how it works.) “Your will be done; give us our daily bread.” It’s a modest, humble, controlled prayer.
There is much good in the prayer that Jesus taught us. It is our model. That is why we pray it—or a version of it—almost every Sunday.
This morning, though, I want to lift up the virtues of the improper prayer; of Hannah’s gut-wrenching, emotionally charged tirade and bargaining session.
Hannah breaks the rules established by the ancestors of the faith when she approaches Yahweh directly about a child for herself. Hannah comes in a long line of Israelite matriarchs who were barren: Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel. In all of these cases, the women’s husbands interceded for them with Yahweh. But Hannah goes boldly before God herself, not submitting her request to her husband or even the priest.
She also breaks the rules in the way she prays. She is standing before God, tears streaming down her face. She is moving her lips, but no sound is coming out. This is obviously not the way prayer was done in the shrine at Shiloh, because Eli accuses her of being drunk.
Hannah also breaks a theological rule about prayer; she prays: “Give me a son.” No “if it be thy will.” No, “God, the path I would prefer for my life would be for you to give me a son.” Just, “I want a son; give me one.” And God answers and honors her request.
There is danger in asking God for specific things, in putting God to the test. God might not cure the disease or give me the job or fill the offering plate. I think the so-called “name it and claim it” theology is one of the most dangerous forces in our society right now. This teaching that you simply ask God for what you want (and send a little seed money to the preacher) and your prayers will be answered with a “yes.”
But I also think that in my resistance to that theological extreme, I have sometimes missed out on the blessing of approaching God with the longings of my heart and watching in faith as God responds to my prayers.
Prayer is a mysterious thing. I do not understand it. I do not know why God sometimes answers “yes” and sometimes answers “no.” But I do know that it is better to participate fully in the mystery of prayer than to distance ourselves from God because we don’t understand it.
I attended my denominational region’s annual conference last weekend. (Don’t be jealous.) And it was remarkable in many ways. On Friday night, we had worship during one of the World Series games, and I only saw one person with an earbud–listening to the game while singing hymns.
Even more notably, delegates voted to institute a new policy that allows pastors to officiate same-sex weddings (or not) if their congregations support them.
Now, if you live in the secular world where gay marriage is legal and everyone loves Ellen, this policy may not seem notable at all. But if you live in the Mennonite world, this is (sadly) huge.
[For more, see my column on Huffington Post.]
Let me summarize the common message drawn from the story of the widow’s mite: “Friends, this poor widow gave everything she had to the temple treasury, so pull out your checkbooks and give a lot of money to this church.”
But let’s not go there. Let’s back up and consider the context.
First we have to think about the widow. Throughout the law and the prophets–scripture that Jesus knew intimately–the “widow and orphan” are held up as symbols of the most vulnerable people in society. The Israelites are repeatedly told to “defend the cause of the widow;” to provide for the widow; to protect the widow.
This concern for the widow extends into Jesus’ time when the male heads of household were required to pay a temple tax; thus the widows were released from that financial obligation. The religious establishment was required by their laws and scriptures to alleviate the oppression of widows.
Second, we have to think about the temple. It is, after all, the temple treasury where this poor widow puts her last two coins. The temple–in a constant state of construction–is the economic lifeblood of Jerusalem. It provides probably over half of the jobs in the city. It’s a stronger tourist magnet than Disneyland.
Third, we have to think about the totality of Jesus’ teachings. Immediately before the story of the widow, Jesus is in the temple courts and has attracted a large crowd. He says, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
Did you hear that? Scribes, many of whom are beneficiaries of the money put into the temple treasury, “devour widows’ houses.” Now read the story again:
Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’
While Jesus seems to have great love for the generous widow, I’m not sure he is entirely pleased that she gave the corrupt temple system all she had to live on. The house of God should not be a place where the poor are exploited, but where they are cared for.
We, of course, do not want to be like the scribes who walk around in long robes and devour widow’s houses. Most people argue that we should instead be like the widow who gives her last two coins to the treasury. But I think that we should be like the other scribe–the one Jesus talks with shortly before this passage; the one who says that to love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself is much more important than all of the monetary gifts we can offer.
To this scribe Jesus says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
The Lectionary readings for All Saints Day and All Souls day include lovely words and images of God’s care for us and the Divine promise of eternal life:
“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”
“God will swallow up death forever.”
“Death will be no more. Mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”
“If we have died with Christ, we believe we will also live with him.”
“I am the resurrection and the life.”
In the face of death, these are the promises we cling to as Christian people. And they are good promises. True promises.
And, to be quite honest, annoying promises to have repeated to you over and over and over again when you are in the midst of deep grief.
Maybe my situation was a little different from most. Maybe because my dad was a pastor and my mom is a pastor and I am a pastor people felt like they had to quote all of these eternal life Bible verses to us when dad was dying in the hospital. And after.
It’s not that I didn’t want to hear these words of hope and promise. I did. I still do. I need these words in order to breathe sometimes.
It’s just that these are not the only words I wanted to hear. A basic internet Bible search will bring up passage after passage about people grieving. (Genesis 23:1-2; 37:32-35; 50:7-11; Exodus 34:5-8; 2 Samuel 18:33; John 11:17, 20-36) Abraham mourning for Sarah. Jacob bewailing Joseph’s blood-splattered robe. Joseph mourning Jacob. The Israelites weeping for Moses. And, of course, David’s heart-wrenching cry over his son. A cry that must resonate in the heart of any parent who has experienced the death of a child: “O my son, my son. Would I had died instead of you.”
Because even with the promise of eternal life, death is horrible and hard. And the enactment of grief is a faithful response. Wailing, weeping, tearing clothes, traveling, burial.
We also have this beautiful story of Lazarus’ death and Jesus’ response. This story from John 11 contains what is arguably the most popular memory verse of all time: “Jesus wept.” It’s popularity as a memory verse stems, no doubt, from its length. But I love this verse for its depth.
Jesus weeps at Lazarus’ death. Even though Jesus has just told Martha that he is the resurrection and the life. Even though Jesus surely knows better than anyone that the promises of God are true. Even though Jesus is getting ready to raise Lazarus from the tomb. Still Jesus weeps.
And the people watching say, “See how he loved him!”
Our grief does not mean that our faith is weak. It means that our love is strong.
And that love, and the tears, and the promises to which we cling are all part of the flickering flame that lights our way.
Some more for all Saints Day:
In the darkest valley,
at the banquet table;
in the hard work of life,
at the moments of ease;
in our day-to-day reality,
at times set aside–
like this time, now–
for worship, for listening, for paying attention;
with every step we take:
goodness and mercy follow us;
our cups overflow.