Bible Study

Do Not Fear What they Fear

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.

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Is He a Man of God?

The following reflection is excerpted from my sermon on 2 Kings 4:8-37.



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)

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Thoughts on Hannah and Prayer

[This reflection is excerpted from an earlier sermon.]

1 Samuel 1:4-18

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.

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Reflecting on the Widow’s Mite

Mark 12:38-44

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.”

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Reflection for All Saints Day

My dad, saint of my life, who would be really excited about the Royals going to the World Series.

My dad, saint of my life, who would be really excited about the Royals going to the World Series.

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:

Call to Worship
Sermon on Revelation 21:1-6
Call to Worship and Reflection

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The Man Who Went Away Grieving

Even now, two thousand years later, you can almost hear the man’s sigh of relief when Jesus reminds him of the basic commandments. “Yeah, yeah. I’ve got all of that covered,” says the man. (“I’ve got eternal life in the bag,” he thinks.)

And you can almost see the look of concern slowly settle on his face as he realizes Jesus is not done talking. Jesus looks at him with love and says, You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

And so we read that, “When the young man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

The Greek word used here for grieving is a serious, heavy word–it’s what the disciples felt when Jesus told them he would be killed; it’s what they felt when Jesus said one of them would betray him; it’s what Jesus felt when he was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.

This young, wealthy, good, religious man was grieving as he left Jesus.

Any time we lose something, there is grief involved, and this man who came to Jesus was grieving because he has lost something. With these few words from Jesus, the man has lost the entire future life he imagined for himself. Thus far, he has been holding to his wealth and possessions while he followed the commandments. He has envisioned a future in which he has prosperity, power, prestige–and eternal life.

Jesus says that’s not how it works. If this guy wants to be perfect, he’s got to give up his possessions. And thus, if he keeps his possessions, he will have to give up his aspirations of perfection–his view of himself as a devoted, faithful person. He was grieving because his idea of how life works had been shattered.

This man’s conversation with Jesus did not go quite as he had hoped. This thing Jesus told him to do was difficult–perhaps too difficult. So the young man went away grieving. He went back to his McMansion, snuggled down in his Lazy Boy, and flipped on the big screen TV, never to see Jesus again.

That’s the story we’ve heard, right? Not exactly.

We only know that the man goes–which is actually what Jesus tells him to do: “Go, sell your possessions.”

And we know that he is grieving.

We tend to assume he is grieving because he is not willing to sell his possessions, which means that he will not gain eternal life after all.

But it is also possible that he is grieving because he’s really going to miss that TV. He was so enjoying the new surround sound stereo system that he got for Christmas.

The story simply does not say. None of the three versions in the gospels say whether the man went and kept his possessions or went and sold his possessions. The text says only that he went away grieving.

It is interesting to me that there is such a broad belief that he rejects Jesus’ instructions. Some scholars even refer to this as a “failed call narrative.” We fill in the end of this story in our heads without even realizing we are doing it.

Why? Why do we all fill in this story automatically? And why do we all imagine the same ending?

Is it because that’s how our story would end?

*This post is adapted from a sermon on Matthew 19:16-30, a parallel passage to this week’s Lectionary reading from Mark 10:17-31.

*You can find a family liturgy based on Mark 10:17-31 at Practicing Families.


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My Favorite Bible Story that’s not in the Bible

The following is an excerpt from a sermon I preached on Matthew 17:24-27. This was the last sermon in our summer series: Who is Jesus?.

I’ve always loved this quirky story, but I only recently realized how many assumptions I have made about it.

Like the assumption that Jesus actually did pay the temple tax. Really, we only have Peter’s word for this. And let’s think for a minute about how reliable Peter is—particularly under pressure. We know how Peter responded in the courtyard after Jesus was arrested when people asked him– “Aren’t you one of his followers?” “Oh no,” said Peter. “I never heard of this Jesus guy.” Right? That’s Peter.

So this confrontation with the temple tax collectors: “Hey! You! Does that teacher of yours pay the temple tax like he’s supposed to?” I imagine that Peter would say “Of course he does!” regardless of the truth of the matter. Peter says Jesus pays the tax, but it’s entirely possible Peter is lying.

Another assumption I’ve always made is that this is a story about Peter catching a fish with money in its mouth. In reality, it is a story about Jesus telling Peter to go catch the fish—we never actually see Peter go fishing. In fact, I was so sure that the story of Peter catching the fish was in the Bible that when I realized he doesn’t catch the fish in Matthew, I went in search of the story somewhere else . . . but it’s not there.

What if it didn’t happen? Not because Jesus couldn’t arrange for Peter to catch a money-filled fish, but because Jesus wasn’t being serious. Because, just maybe, Jesus was being snarky and sarcastic. It’s possible Jesus wasn’t actually telling Peter to go catch a fish with a coin in its mouth, but rather Jesus was pointing out the ridiculous nature of the temple tax and chastising Peter for telling the tax collectors that he was willing to pay it.

“Sure. I’ll be happy to pay that tax. Just go catch a fish with the money in its mouth.”

We can’t know for sure whether Jesus really expects Peter to pay the tax with the fishy money or whether he is making a pointed joke, but I’m intrigued by this alternate reading of this story. The crux of Matthew’s brief narrative here isn’t really Peter’s statement to the tax collectors or the instructions for him to go fishing. The central point of this passage is Jesus’ question: “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?”

Of course the king’s children don’t pay taxes. With this simple question, Jesus points out the deeply rooted injustice of the taxation system. It is a harsh critique.

And after establishing that the taxation system is unjust, Jesus says, “however, so that we do not give offense to them, go and cast your hook . . .”.

So that we do not give offense to them.”

Think for just a minute. Can you think of another story from the Gospels in which Jesus’ primary objective is to not cause offense. . . . Anyone? . . .

Maybe, rather than a glimpse of a compliant Jesus who can perform nifty tricks, Matthew is giving us a glimpse of an exasperated Jesus. A Jesus who is weary from the injustices that surround him. A Jesus who is tired of his followers not understanding what he is really about. A Jesus who does not pay taxes and is not about to give money to a corrupt temple system and wishes Peter had the guts to just tell the tax collectors to go jump in the lake. A Jesus who will pay his stinking temple tax when Peter catches a fish with a gold coin in its mouth!

Maybe. It’s hard to say for sure. But at any rate, it is a great fish story.

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Reflection on Psalm 131

[This is an excerpt from my sermon for March 22, 2015. You can read the full sermon text here.]

I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

“I have calmed and quieted my soul.” This calm, this stillness, that the psalmist speaks of is a longing I have—probably a longing many of you share as well. Not just a chance to be physically still, but a chance for our souls to be calm within us. It is so hard to just be.

I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

The vision is lovely. The question is: How? How do we calm and quiet our souls, even in the best, most calm circumstances? Let alone in the chaos that often is our lives.

I wonder if the psalmist’s metaphor can be helpful here: “Like a weaned child with its mother.”

For one thing, a weaned child has reached a certain level of maturity; in the psalmist’s day, a weaned child was most likely a toddler—able to talk, walk, eat on her own. A weaned child still needs his mother, to be sure, but it is a different kind of neediness than that of a nursing infant. You may have experienced yourself—or seen—a nursing infant in her mother’s arms; you think she is resting peacefully, and then the nuzzling starts; the baby was content, but suddenly she wants the milk she knows is nearby, and she becomes restless. That doesn’t happen with a weaned child.

I’ve been thinking: If God is the mother and we are the children, what does it mean for us to be weaned?

Maybe that we can rest comfortably in the presence of God, without a sense of restless neediness.

Maybe that our prayers are not always cries for milk, for sustenance. We choose to be with God simply because we want to be in our Mother’s presence, not because we need some particular from her.

Maybe that our bond with God is deep and sometimes invisible; it doesn’t depend on external, surface connection.

Maybe being weaned means that we can sit down in that chair across from God and stay within the Divine gaze for more than two minutes.

I don’t know exactly what this metaphor means. And I certainly don’t know how to reach this state of being “like a weaned child with its mother.”

But one thing certainly seems clear: the stillness that we desire–this calm and quiet soul—is not the product of a perfectly ordered environment. It is not even the result of a fully evolved or actualized sense of self.

The psalmist’s metaphor suggests that the calm and quiet soul is dependent upon having a right relationship with our Divine mother.

The calm and quiet soul comes from being able to rest in God’s presence; to sit in the Divine gaze and know that we are being seen as beloved children. Amen.

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On Doing Faith Together

*This reflection is excerpted from a sermon on Mark 1:14-20. You can also listen to the audio.]

This is one of those overly-familiar texts. One of those Bible stories we’ve heard over and over again since we were kids. I looked up the scripture, saw the heading–”Jesus calls the disciples”–and I knew what the text said even before I read it. It’s really a pretty straight forward story as far as Bible stories go. Jesus calls the disciples; he says “follow” and they follow.

Not only did I know what the story was, but I knew what it meant: like the disciples, we are supposed to follow Jesus when he calls to us. There is surprising agreement among preachers of all persuasions about what this story means for us today.

This week, though, I started wondering why we always read this story to say, “You should follow Jesus like these guys did.”

When we read the story of Jesus blessing the children we don’t say, “See how the disciples turned the children away? That’s what we should do.” We don’t read about James and John asking to be seated next to Jesus in heaven and say, “We should be vying for the best heavenly chairs.”

As Christians—and especially as Anabaptist Christians—our focus when we read scripture is on Jesus. What is Jesus doing? What is Jesus teaching? How can we better follow the example set by Jesus?

So, yes, it’s great that James and John and Andrew and Peter all leave their nets and follow Jesus. And I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do the same—If ever God incarnate should ask you to lay down your fishing net, or turn off your computer, or leave your classroom, or send in your letter of resignation . . . I would suggest you do that.

But why are we so hyper-focused on the disciples in this story? What about Jesus? What is it Jesus is doing here that we are called to imitate?

If a charismatic healer invites you to leave behind the drudgery of being a fisherman in a backwater town like Galilee—Why wouldn’t you say yes? The perplexing part of the story is why Jesus asked them to follow him in the first place.

I’ve always taken it for granted that Jesus had disciples, but really, their very existence is pretty amazing. It’s a deep sign of God’s grace that Jesus—God incarnate, the savior of the world—walked around the countryside with a group of people. That he invited people to be part of the work he was doing—work he surely could have done without their “help.”

We’ve all experienced unhelpful help. The kind of help that makes a task take three times as long as it should: kids helping to wash the dishes; me helping Ryan iron his shirts; a committee full of people helping to edit a document. And the more capable you are at something, the more of a problem “help” can be. I’d say Jesus was pretty capable in the savior department. The disciples must have driven him crazy.

So why does he do it? Why does Jesus call James and John and Andrew and Peter away from their boats and nets? Why does he invite these uncomprehending fishermen to follow him around and get in the way?

It makes no sense.

And yet here is Jesus, on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, recruiting fishermen to follow him.

What if the point of this story is that we should invite other people to be part of our lives? People we don’t think we really need. People whose help might be less than helpful. People who will not always understand us or agree with us. People that will drive us crazy.

Really, this whole disciples thing makes no sense.

Unless the point isn’t to do life efficiently, but to do it together.

Unless salvation is as much about how we relate to each other as it is about how we relate to God.

Unless somehow, by God’s mysterious and confounding grace, the good news of the Kingdom of God comes to fullness only when we work to live it and proclaim it with each other.

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Reflections on 1 Samuel 3

[This post is excerpted from this full sermon.]

The very first sentence of this story tells us that “the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli.” And this sentence tells us right away how things are supposed to work. Samuel is a boy and Eli is a grown-up. Samuel is serving under Eli.

Which means that it is God who is not following protocol here. God has no business coming directly to Samuel. God’s supposed to go through Eli. Eli is a priest at the temple. His entire purpose in life is to mediate the word of God. Eli exists in the world so that God can speak to the people through him. God is supposed to speak to all of the people through Eli; and God is especially supposed to speak through Eli if God wants the attention of a boy serving under Eli.

But that is not how it happens. The Lord calls directly to Samuel, and this is so out of order, so unexpected, that it takes Eli awhile to figure out what is going on. According to our story, it is not until the third time Samuel comes running in to Eli’s room that Eli “perceived that the Lord was calling the boy.” Because the Lord is not supposed to be calling the boy. The Lord is supposed to be calling the old, blind priest who has served in the temple for decades.

But finally, Eli figures out what is happening. And this is where I think he is at least a little heroic. He tells Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if the voice calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”

Perhaps by calling Eli “heroic” I am simply defining “hero” as someone who takes a better, more mature course of action than I imagine I would take in a similar situation. Because here is how I imagine it might have gone down if I were in Eli’s position. (You know, in my alternate universe where women served as priests in the temple.)

The fifth or sixth time Sammy came running in saying, “Here I am. You called me”–when I figured out it was actually God calling Samuel—I would have said, “Oh dear. That’s God calling you. God must be terribly confused. Here, let me just put on my robe and I’ll go back to your room with you so I can talk to God and see what’s up.”

Even though Eli, by all rights, is the one God should be talking to, Eli accepts the fact that God is speaking not to him, but to Samuel. And rather than get angry or jealous or bitter, Eli helps Samuel understand that it is the Lord speaking and instructs Samuel about how to best receive the word of God.

Not everyone can do that, you know. Some people are so sure about who God should be talking to and what God should be saying that they can miss the word of God altogether.

There’s a prayer I love by Hebrew Scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann that begins: “We are your people and mostly we don’t mind, except that you do not fit any of our categories. We keep pushing . . . trying to make you fit the God we would rather have.”

I love that prayer because, if we are honest, we have to admit that for all of us there is a God we would rather have. We all hold onto the way things should be. The way God should be. Who is and is not worthy to carry the divine message in this world.

It is hard to hear God when the divine voice operates outside the reasonable parameters we have set for it.

We serve a God who does not fit our categories or behave in ways we think a respectable God should behave. And listening for that God, instead of the God we would rather have, is hard. It is maddening. And it is necessary.

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