So you think you are a god

A sermon for Proper 4: 1 Kings 17:8-16, (17-24), Psalm 146, Galatians 1:11-24, Luke 7:11-17

If you watch any TV at all, you know about reality TV. There seems to be a contest for almost everything. There is a “So you think you are a …” contest for singers dancers, cooks, stage and movie makeup artists, and home makeovers. This morning we seem to have a “So you think you are a god” contest.

Elijah is in the northern Kingdom Israel. Israel’s’ kings have gotten progressively more sinful and Ahab worst of the worst. He is married to Jezebel and actively worships Baal; he builds an altar to Baal. God tells Elijah to announce there will be a drought. This is a direct challenge to Baal, who is the Canaanite god of rain and fertility (Hoezee, Harrelson, Sakenfeld). By a roundabout way, Elijah ends up at the gates of Zarephath, a Phoenician city and center of Baal worship (Harrelson). And although Baal must periodically submit to Mot, the Canaanite god death, which causes drought, it is clear the God of Israel is the cause of this drought in the very heartland of Baal home territory (Gaventa and Petersen).

Remember last week we heard the story of Elijah versus the prophets of Baal in which Elijah’s sacrifice is accepted in the blazing all-consuming fire after Baal’s prophets were unable to get a response to their appeals. I don’t think we got to the verses that immediately follow where God brings the drought to an end. The “So you think you are a god” contest is leaning in God’s favor. However, there is more to the story than drought.

Elijah meets a widow at the gates of Zarephath and offers her a source of unending bread and oil, an amazing abundance in the face of dire scarcity (Chan). She shares with him the last of her and her son’s food, and sure enough, there is grain and oil to last. We don’t know how long it takes, but the widow’s son gets sick and dies. She blames Elijah because he brought her, and her sins, to God’s attention. Elijah takes the child to his room, enacts some ritual, and asks God to restore his life. In the heart of Baal’s territory; in the heart of Mot’s territory, once again God brings life from despair and death revealing that God is sovereign (Harrelson).

The widow’s son is brought to life. The widow professes belief in Elijah as a man of God, and in that belief, faith in God. At this point, the contest is over, neither Baal nor Mot prevails; the Lord, the God of Israel, is God of all (Gaventa and Petersen).

Widow Zarephath’s story is not new; she is in the same crisis Naomi is in in the Book of Ruth. Despite the many laws and statutes designed to give widows extra consideration, in reality, widows continued to be an exploited group, invisible to most (Hoezee).

As Jesus approaches the Gate of Nain, he sees a funeral procession of a widow’s only son. The mother’s grief is deep and bitter. It’s less than a day since his death, and she has no idea what the evening will bring, never mind what will become of her from here on. She is shrouded in despair (Hogan). Uninvited, Jesus goes to the bier and stops the procession and just tells the man to get up. No ritual, no touching the body, just simply “I say to you rise.” And he does. Jesus brings life from despair and death.

A couple of observations about these stories’ context. Elijah could not be in a more hostile place, yet it is here, in the heart of hostile territory, in the heart of another belief system, that God calls him to bear witness to the presence and power of God. I’ll acknowledge a bit of cultural projection; however, uninvited, Jesus intercedes in a profoundly personal time and acts. One commentator asks:

What would be your reaction if a stranger walked in during the funeral of one of your [family] and stopped the proceedings (Hogan)?

The opportunity to be Jesus’ witness “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8) is more often than not in unexpected, inhospitable, intrusive circumstances (Chan).

Widow Zarephath and the Widow Nain have been cut off from their communities by the deaths of their husbands and their sons. They have no prospects of providing for themselves. And yes, God and Jesus restore life to the dead sons; but they also restore life to the mothers (Hoezee). It is a common feature of healing miracles, that not only is life restored to the object of the miracle, but also to others, as community connections are also restored to life. A sign that our service in Jesus’ ministry is bearing fruit is that all sorts of things adjacent to the focus of our work begin showing signs of renewed hope, and budding life (Hoezee).

Bible stories like Widow Zarephath and Widow Nain are at one level comforting. At the same time, they can leave us uneasy, because we continue to live in a world that knows all sorts of death; from the death of loved ones, the loss of an opportunity, a job, a dream, or whatever. We are left not knowing how to respond, afraid of creeping doubt, fretful about the lack of our own faith. So how are we to respond? I have just read a book for my upcoming D.Min. class titled Leading Causes of Life. One observation is how much time and energy we tend to put into those things that cause death in an effort to stop death. These efforts are not wrong; however, the author observes how little resources we put into causes of life (Gunderson and Page). Perhaps ministry lies in nurturing life not simply fighting death. What Elijah’s and Jesus’ actions did that we can do is to nurture life. What we can do that is similar to their action is to sustain and nurture the potential that is right next to what is suffering, as the professional healers minister to the suffering. In both stories, it is the widowed grieving mothers who are at risk. In both stories, the act of ministry is not directed at them but at specifically their sons, or more generally some portion of life that is tangential to them which when nourished to flourishing will spill life all over them.

We all know Reality TV is not what it seems. Nonetheless, the reality is that the opportunity for service to Jesus ministry is not right in front of us, but perhaps in one of the surrounding communal relations. The reality is that with a touch of brazen uninvited interruption, or seemingly unrelated action, we can witness to the life-giving presence of God in Jesus by the Holy Spirit to the ends of the earth.


References

Bratt, Doug. Proper 5CCenter for Excellence in Preaching. 5 6 2016. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Chan, Michael J. “Commentary on 1 Kings 17:816.” 6 9 2015. Working Preacher.

Ferguson, Shannon. “Green and Growing, Proper 5 (C) – 2016.” 5 6 2016. Sermons that Work.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Gunderson, Gary and Larry Page. Leading Causes of Life. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel Luke 7:11-17. 5 6 2016.

Hogan, Lucy Lind. Commentary on Luke 7:11-17. 5 6 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Lewis, Karoline. When Jesus Shows Up. 5 6 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Mast, Stan. Lectionary Epistle. 6 9 2015. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

 

 

 

 

A Season of Choice

A Sermon for Proper 4: 1 Kings 18:20-21, (22-29), 30-39, Psalm 96, Galatians 1:1-12, Luke 7:1-10

This is Memorial Day weekend. It is full of opportunities for families and friends to gather and share a meal and good times; to enjoy the plentiful sales merchants have been offering for a week or so. It is time to remember.

My uncle flew B 24s over the south pacific in WWII. My dad served in post-WWII Germany. Larry, customer of mine flew DC 3s over the Himalayas in WWII. The challenge was not just flying over the highest mountains in the world; there were the winds. At times, the throttle would be all back with the nose pointed down, and the plane would be rising. The next minute the throttle would be full on with the nose pointed up, and the plane would be falling. Col. Rogers, one of my acolyte masters was on the first team into Hiroshima. Pat Durkee, Sgt. Major USMC (Retired) was my Field Director when I was working with the Boy Scouts, my first real job after college. Bob Atkins, Sgt. Major US Army (Retired) was a mentor when I was first ordained. David Stout, USMC was my first sales manager. Mark Lemon, a high school classmate, was a swift boat captain in Viet Nam. All these are folks I know, who have in one way or another journeyed with me to this point in my life and made some contribution to who I am.

But on his Memorial Day weekend, there are two others who stand out Mike Michelli, Angie’s father, who was killed in action in Viet Nam. I did not have the honor of asking him for his daughter’s hand in marriage. 1990 his 4-year-old granddaughter cried when we found his name on the Memorial Wall. She cried when she realized she had never known, and would never know her grandfather.

The other, Jimmy Kinsey was wounded in Iraq and lost a leg below the knee. He adjusted well to the prosthetic, often playing pranks with it. Jimmy would carefully place his prosthetic by the door so that you would step on it and go sit across the room. When someone did step on he’d shout “ouch!” Not all adjustment to life went so well. Jimmy struggled and was sent to the Wounded Warriors program. There he fell; he hit his head on and iron bed post and died. His parents, related to a parishioner of mine, were not churched, asked me to preside at his funeral. It is one of the greatest honors ever extended to me. I went to meet his parents, and ended up meeting the Marine honor guard; there were five Marines, I think. I listened as they shared their stories of serving with Jimmy. At some point, one pointed to another of the group said, “He was blown up first, then me, them him and him and him.” All of those marines had been injured by an IED explosion. All of them were the same age as my daughters. I thought to myself “What are we doing for $2 a gallon gas?” Later, as I realized our IRAs and 403b likely had investments in companies that profited from the war in Iraq, or from our armed forces in harm’s way across the world, I thought, “What I am doing?” My thoughts this morning are not about the political legitimacy of war. My thoughts this morning are about choice, our choices as individuals and our choices as a society.

Elijah speaks to all Israel “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” No one spoke a word. Still he insists that they make a choice; believe and follow God or follow Baal; one way or another you have to make a choice. As has been their tendency, most of Israel tried to avoid making a choice. They preferred to hedge their bets; proclaim one god but just in case honor others. Elijah says “Nope – you got to choose.” He does go on to make a rather dramatic argument for God. Nonetheless, the people as individuals and as a society must choose. The effect of divine consuming fire is that Israel chooses to follow God. However, they have made that choice before; at Saini, and crossing into the promised land and here they are choosing again.

Luke’s story of Jesus’ encounter with the Roman Centurion is about choice. Centurion is an outsider and official of the oppressing Roman Empire. It would be a close race between Centurions or tax collectors for the most despised. The story reveals several choices the Centurion makes:

  • He chooses to work with the Jews under his watch, in fact, he built a synagogue for them.
  • He chooses to help a sick slave / servant; revealing that his choice to see the servant /slave as more than an expendable commodity.
  • He knows about Jesus, though we don’t know how, and he chooses to invite Jesus to help (Wong).
  • He chooses to recognize the Jewish tradition that coming into a Gentile property would defile Jesus, so he does not demand or even ask him to (Hogan).
  • He chooses to believe that physical proximity is not a necessary ingredient for healing.

Finally, as Jesus notes

  • he chooses to believe,
  • he chooses faith.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians reveals

  • his choice,
  • the choices of competing teachers, and
  • the choices of the members of the church which is where he starts.

Paul’s chooses to launch into a diatribe, there is little of the customary accolades and greetings. The central question is: Do you have to follow Jewish laws and customs to be Christian? We know Paul’s position is “No.” All you have to do is accept Jesus as God’s anointed Christ. In Paul’s absence, some Jews who follow Jesus are teaching “a different gospel.” Note that ‘gospel’ here is not capitalized; it is not the collection of books in scripture we call “The Gospels.” Here ‘gospel’ is the good news about Jesus as our Lord, and provider of salvation. These other teachers are teaching a different gospel, not so much about who Jesus is, but about how you have to behave to be a true believer, which includes following the Jewish traditions and Laws. Like Elijah, Paul is saying you have to make a choice. While not as dramatic as Elijah, he is no less vehement about his beliefs. He is no less ardent in his demand that the church in Galatia choose.

Having to choose is common in the bible. Generally, they can be understood as “Will you choose life or death (Epperly).” One type of choice is simple obedience. The first bad choice was to eat fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3). A good early choice was Noah’s choice to build the Ark (Genesis 7).

Another type is which god to follow or pledge allegiance to. In scripture, the choice is God or some other deity. Today the choice is what comes first, God or some other political / economic agenda or ideal (Epperly). What will it mean to choose God in this November’s or any election (Epperly)? Who is Baal today? a political party, a sports team, a social cause, pursuit wealth or power; or simply sleeping in (Ellingsen).

Another choice is who belongs and is included. The Galatians and many early Christians struggled with who is in and who is out. We face the same struggle today. Who can be baptized, who can be confirmed, who can receive communion, who can be ordained? Who belongs is at the core of our struggle with sexuality, race, and who can immigrate. One way to see our choice about who belongs is: Will we choose to accept that God has already chosen, through the birth, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, to welcome everyone into God’s presence (West)?

Another choice is how we understand ministry. Abraham’s offers gracious hospitality to three strangers at his camp at the Oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18). There is a Jewish notion that hospitality is the basis of all ministry. What do we choose to be the basis of our ministry?

Jesus heals the slave / servant of the centurion because of his owner’s faith. Are we willing to choose to approach Jesus, for ourselves, for our friends, for our enemies (Hogan)?

In many traditions, the season after Pentecost is known as Ordinary Time. One commentator believes it should be Extraordinary Time. Another would prefer we call it the Season of Pentecost because every day holds potential for an encounter with the Spirit (Lewis).

I am pondering this as a season of choice. We can choose the devices and desire of our own hearts. Or, we can choose the Spirit, who, in revealing the divine truth, will guide all our choices as we are learning how to choose Jesus’ teachings in our ministries and all of our daily lives (Wong).


References

Bratt, Doug. Proper 4C Center for Excellence in Preaching . 29 5 2016. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Chan, Michael J. Commentary on 1 Kings 18:20-21[22-29] 30-39. 29 5 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Ellingsen, Mark. 29 5 2016. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 29 5 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. “Proper 4C Center for Excellence in Preaching.” 29 5 2016. Working Preacher.

Hogan, Lucy Lind. Commentary on Luke 7:110. 29 5 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Lewis, Karoline. Back to Reality. 29 5 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Mast, Stan. Lectionary Epistle. 6 9 2015. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

West, Audrey. Commentary on Galatians 1:112. 29 5 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Wong, Ada. “God is Much Bigger, Proper 4 (C) – 2016.” 29 5 2016. Sermons that Work.