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)
Friends, I’ve re-started my blog on Huffington Post. That space will host a (hopefully) regular humor column, while I will continue to post worship pieces, biblical reflections, theological ponderings, and denominational rants here at Spacious Faith.
Thanks for reading!
This is the first resurrection story in the Bible. Amidst all the miracles of the Hebrew scriptures–creation and the flood and the plagues and the red sea parting and the water in the wilderness—here in 1 Kings 17 is the first time we ever read of God making someone who is dead alive again.
It is, you could argue, the ultimate miracle—a precursor to the culmination of the Christian narrative in Jesus’ resurrection; the surest evidence of God’s power: bringing a dead person back to life.
Considering the magnitude of this miracle, I am struck by how private it is. In the next chapter, we read about the big competition between Elijah and the prophets of Baal with the dramatic fire coming down from heaven. But how much more profound, more awe-inspiring, more impressive is this miracle of renewed life? How much more fully does this dead-now-living boy reveal the nature and power of God?
And yet there is no crowd. Only Elijah in his room with the dead boy. No big speech. Only Elijah’s desperate demands of God.
When Elijah prays for the fire, he begs God to do the miracle in order to prove to the people that Yahweh is God. The fire from heaven is a miracle for miracle’s sake. But this restoration of the widow’s son, this is something completely different. It seems to be a response of God to the emotional pain of the widow and Elijah. It seems that the widow’s cries prompt Elijah to action and that, in turn, Elijah’s cries prompt God.
Now this gets us into pretty tricky theological territory. This question of whether God ever changes the divine “mind.” This question about whether our prayers can actually prompt God to action that God would not otherwise take. We could talk circles around these questions, coming up with biblical examples and counter examples and philosophical insights that push us one way and then the other.
The truth is that, despite the fact that I have “mastered” divinity, I don’t know. I don’t know what our prayers can and can’t do. I don’t know what Elijah’s prayers could and couldn’t do. If Elijah had not told God to bring life back to the boy, would the widow’s son have stayed dead? I don’t know.
This story can easily take us into very murky and uncomfortable theological territory–and leave us there confused and even a little bitter. Because there is so much that we simply don’t know. There is so much that doesn’t make sense about why God would grant new life for this one widow’s son while so many other children stay dead.
But for all the murkiness and uncomfortable questions this story raises, I also find some hope and some comfort at the root of this text.
There is an odd sort of comfort because the sadness and pain in this story is tangible and familiar. The gut-churning recognition of the widow’s grief can serve as a reminder that we all experience loss—that while the details differ, the inner desperation resonates across millennia and across borders of all kinds. Just as we recognize the widow’s grief, others recognize our grief—when it comes.
And there is hope because the presence of God in the midst of the pain is indisputable. What exactly God is doing and why—we can have lingering discussions about that. But in this story we have, without a doubt, the fact of God’s presence. And the fact of God’s activity. A presence and activity that is not for show, not to prove a point, but a presence and activity that exist because God is in relationship with the widow and Elijah and the boy.
Even though God has not brought my loved ones back to life, I cannot deny the presence and activity of God in the midst of my most desperate moments.
Finally, there is comfort and hope in the truth—the truth traced throughout scripture from the creation narratives to this story and into the Gospels and the writings of the early church; the truth at the heart of my Christian faith: that our God is a God of life. Always. Even when we barely understand.
In the midst of so much grief and despair and death in this world, we serve a God of life. I hope and pray that you are, more often than not, able to live into and out of that Divine life.
–This post is excerpted from this full sermon.
A friend of mine recently posed this question on Facebook: Junior high girls braiding each other’s hair in church: appropriate or not? Considering this friend has never been a Jr. High girl nor parented a Jr. High girl, the question seemed sincere and did not bother me.
What did bother me, however, was the frequency with which one particular word kept popping up in the comments: distracting. (Well, the comments about people getting their butts whipped at home for not behaving properly in church also bothered me, but let’s focus this post on “distracting.”) Many people seem to think that girls braiding hair during church is distracting.
Studies1 have shown that we actually retain information better when our hands are occupied. The study I heard about involved doodling, but I imagine braiding hair would have the same effect. So I doubt that the hair braiding is distracting to the girls themselves.
Apparently, then, it is distracting to other people. People who just can’t possibly concentrate on the spirit of worship and the holy word of God when there are 12-year-old girls getting their hair braided in the vicinity. Because their parents never let them braid hair in church? Because of the injunction in I Timothy against braided hair? Because the sermon is so boring that they’re happy to think about anything else? Because it makes them think about how bad their own hair looks that day?
Who knows why some people find hair-braiding distracting. But the distraction seems to have more to do with the person being distracted than it does with the person who is allegedly being distracting.
I will not argue that hair-braiding is appropriate in all worship contexts. It would be in mine; it might not be in yours.
But as the mother of two daughters, I would ask that we avoid referring to girls as distracting. This is a label that society too often ascribes to girls and women as a way of shifting responsibility onto them. Women can’t breastfeed in public because it is distracting. Women can’t serve in the military because they well be a distraction for the men. Girls’ skirts can’t be too short because that would be distracting.
Again, I am not arguing that all of these actions are appropriate. (Public breastfeeding, yes. Women in the military—well, I wish no one would be in the military. My daughter wearing a skirt that barely covers her butt, not OK.) But when we say that a woman is distracting, we make her responsible for the mental state of the people around her. And this is not fair.
As a woman, it is not my responsibility to not distract you. It is your responsibility to focus on what it is you need to focus on.
The other problem with the term distracting is that it is belittling. It signifies that something is not significant, not worthy of the attention it is drawing to itself. That a girl is not worthy of the attention that she is drawing to herself.
Seldom (if ever?) do I hear boys or men referred to as distracting. Disrespectful, yes. Annoying, yes. Inappropriate, yes. But not distracting.
There is something about the term “distracting” that simultaneously strips away the power of the one who is the distraction, while also burdening that person with responsibility for the thoughts of the people around them.
So this is a long answer to a friend’s simple question: Junior high girls braiding each other’s hair in church: appropriate or not? In my church context, I think it’s perfectly appropriate. You may find it inappropriate, or even disrespectful. But please don’t call it distracting.
1“What studies?” you ask. Studies. That I’m sure I heard about on NPR, because that’s basically all I listen to. Unless it was a TED Talk podcast. Just studies. I promise. Trust me.
- I am going to die some day. That day is probably not tomorrow.
- Reading takes more energy than watching Netflix.
- I can almost forget I am sick if I am talking to someone. (Or: Just in case you were wondering, yes, I am an extrovert.)
- I know Renee Zellweger has lots of issues. And I don’t want to be her. But maybe if I could have been her just when she filmed Bridget Jones’ Diary. Because Colin Firth and Hugh Grant.
- My real-life husband who did the kid-driving and grocery shopping and laundry and dishes and cooking for the whole week is sexier than Colin Firth and Hugh Grant put together.
- I still want my mom when I am sick. (And lucky for me, she still wants to take care of me when I’m sick.)
- In the throes of illness, I can come up with some great sermon ideas. Putting those ideas into a coherent sermon, however, is another story.
- The world will not stop without my full participation. Even the church will will not grind to a halt because I’m living on my couch.
- Missing a meeting (or 5) is not the end of the world.
- Having a job I can do from home is both a blessing and a curse.
- Sometimes the first round of antibiotics doesn’t work.
- When the first round of antibiotics doesn’t work, I barely care that I’ve wasted my life watching HGTV all day.
Below is an excerpt from the sermon I preached last Sunday on the “I am” sayings in the Gospel of John. You can read the full text here.
– – – – – –
One of the most popular and–at least for some of us–uncomfortable “I am” sayings is from John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Many Christians use this verse to argue that only Christians—only people who believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah—have access to God. Now, while I personally do believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah, I do not believe that those who disagree with me on this particular theological point are necessarily cut off from God for all eternity. And I’m happy to sit down and discuss my personal beliefs on this issue any time. Particularly if there are baked goods involved.
But for now I’m more interested in what John thinks. Or at least, I’m interested in thinking about what John’s intent might have been in including this “I am” saying in his Gospel.
It is important to note that Jesus does not speak these words out of the blue; it is a response to a direct question. Thomas says to Jesus, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” To which Jesus responds, “I am the way.”
Just as Christianity has many versions and varieties today, first century Judaism also included many different groups with differing practices and teachings. The followers of Jesus—or “the way”–were simply one of many groups within first century Judaism.
As we know from Jesus’ ministry and teaching, some of the religious groups proposed complicated sets of rules and rituals they claimed were necessary for true faith. For example, when Jesus talked about straining out gnats, he was referring to an extreme practice by some Jews who took following Jewish dietary restrictions very very seriously. The Gospels also reveal strict rules for keeping the Sabbath. And more fringe Jewish sects demanded lifestyles of poverty and/or celibacy for those who sought true faith.
Jesus was not the only religious teacher of the day to teach about the way one could access God. The difference was that, while most teachings revolved around what one had to do and not do to get to God, Jesus’ teaching was simply about relationship: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Jesus is speaking here to his closest friends and followers. He is not telling the heathen masses that they have to accept him as their personal Lord and Savior. He is telling his dear friends that their relationship with him is enough—all of the rules and regulations and deprivations they think they have to endure to get to God, it’s not true. Their relationship with Jesus is enough.
That, my friends, is a message of Good News.
Our biannual national Mennonite Church USA convention begins on Tuesday, and there are two resolutions coming before the delegates that highlight disagreements about how our denomination should include LGBTQ people. The resolutions are fairly new, but the disagreements themselves are not.
Many Mennonites, myself included, have spent a lot of time hashing out the details of the biblical and theological basis of our beliefs about inclusion. We have quoted scripture and examined the Greek terms and expounded upon our theologies of creation, family, sexuality, and church. I’m pretty sure a 7-mile walk wouldn’t give me enough time to say all I have to say on the subject.
But if Luke were writing up this story he’d be like: “And beginning with Genesis and the Prophets and focusing on the life of Christ and the witness of the early church, Joanna explained to them what was said in scripture concerning full inclusion of all people.”
I don’t mean to imply I’m like Jesus. I mean to imply that the details of the biblical interpretation and theology are not that important. Which is hard for me to hear, let alone say. Because biblical theology is what I do. Writing about it is what I’m good at. And that’s fine. But it just doesn’t matter that much.
If even Jesus’ theology gets squeezed down to a single sentence, I certainly can’t expect mine to merit any more consideration in the grand scheme of things.
Leading up to the Kansas City Convention, there has been a whole lot of attention paid to Bible study and theological discernment and discussion. But what we really need to do is be present together and walk with each other. And I know that is not as easy as it sounds. And I know my heart is just as resistant to being with some people as theirs is resistant to being with me. Frankly, I’m more comfortable expounding the scriptures than walking beside people with whom I disagree.
But Luke’s narrative suggests that, in the end, the walking together is more significant than the details of the dialog. It is the journey that interests Luke.
And at the end of this journey the two travelers reach their destination and invite the stranger to stay with them. They sit down together for a meal—and that is when they finally recognize Jesus.
That is what it’s all about, right? It’s about helping each other recognize Jesus. And about recognizing Jesus in each other.
My deep prayer for convention is that we will all recognize Jesus’ presence—within us and among us.
- When the delegates talk together at their tables—their eyes will be opened and they will recognize Jesus.
- When youth and adults join in worship–their eyes will be opened and they will recognize Jesus.
- When people sit with strangers during meal time–their eyes will be opened and they will recognize Jesus.
- When Pink Mennos gather to sing hyms–their eyes will be opened and they will recognize Jesus.
We desperately want, to recognize Jesus’ presence among us. And sometimes we do. And that is a deep grace.
But friends, the journey is long. Seven miles, on foot, from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Thirty-Nine miles from Lawrence to Kansas City. Thirteen years since General Conference and Mennonite Church merged to form MC USA. Thirty years that Brethren Mennonite Council has been encouraging Mennonite churches toward full inclusion of LGBTQ people.
The journey is long.
It’s easy for us to read this story and think how silly Cleopas and his companion were to not recognize Jesus as they walked along the road. Weren’t their hearts burning? How did they miss that? They should have known. Those silly disciples.
Really though, we are the silly ones–to talk about when they should have known. They know when they know. They know when God finally opens their eyes. They know Jesus’ presence when divine grace allows them to know it.
The knowing is out of their control. The revelation is up to God.
What Cleopas and his companion should have done is exactly what they did: welcome the stranger to journey with them; share their story; listen to his story; walk and walk and walk together for however long it takes; sit down together at the table.
The travelers did exactly what they should have done. And then God did exactly what God does: opens our eyes to the presence of Jesus in our midst.
May it be so.
[This post is excerpted from the sermon I preached last Sunday.]