Whose God? 1 Kings 18.20-39, Luke 7.1-10

May 29, 2016 – 2nd Sunday after Pentecost

This morning we start five Sundays on the stories of the prophet Elijah found in the first and second book of Kings. As we get started, here’s some of the backstory to help you have a better sense of what’s going on in this morning’s reading.

After the reign of King David and then his son Solomon, the kingdom of Israel was divided. There are a series of kings who rule in each kingdom. Many of whom are bad. But King Ahab, who we hear about in today’s reading, is one of the worst. The story says he “did evil in the sight of God—more than had all the kings of Israel who were before him.” (16.30) Chief among his failings was his marriage to a Canaanite princess who was a Baal worshiper and then Ahab’s own allegiance to the Canaanite god Baal rather than the God of Israel.

During Ahab’s reign, there is a long drought in Israel and with it widespread famine. About three years into the drought, Elijah, the prophet of the God of Israel, and King Ahab meet up. They both blame the other for being the source of the drought. Ahab blames Elijah because Elijah said early on that there would be a drought. Elijah blames Ahab because Ahab has broken the covenant relationship with the God of Israel by worshiping Baal.

So Elijah proposes a contest between their gods. With the people of Israel as witnesses, 450 prophets of Baal meet Elijah on Mount Carmel. Each side will prepare a sacrifice and then call on their god to send fire from heaven to burn the sacrifice. The god that sends the fire will prevail.

This sort of competition between gods is typically not in our direct experience so let me say a few words about it. In a world where there are multiple gods, there’s always a tension about which god is the most powerful. We have multiple gods in our culture including status, money, power, family, beauty, material possessions; but they don’t typically have a face-off in this manner.

In the ancient world, each god had a particular responsibility or trait and there were frequently competitions between them. Baal was the god of fertility and storms. Agrarian people, as the Canaanites and Israelites were, needed rain each year for their crops. A drought would signal the powerlessness of Baal. When there was rain it would be presumed that Baal was powerful.

So the prophet Elijah tells King Ahab, “Let’s see whose god—yours or mine—is more powerful.”

Read: 1 Kings 18.20-39

Now if your eyes slid on to verse 40 you saw that the end of this particular story is that Elijah slays all the prophets of Baal. (A detail the lectionary would like us to skip over.) Presumably this is in retribution for all the prophets of the God of Israel who were killed by Ahab’s wife, Queen Jezebel.

In our day of interfaith dialogue and in our city where the Festival of Faiths just took place, I hope this story feels terrible to you. Two sides jousting (almost literally) to see whose god is more powerful. An adherent of one faith mocking the god of another. The losers of the religious competition being killed by the victor. This is not the kind of religion we want to be part of. The last thing we need in our world is more violence between people of different religious traditions.

Let me first say I don’t see the point of the two stories, from 1 Kings and Luke, as being about a difference between the God portrayed in the Old Testament and the portrayal of God in the New Testament or a comparison between Jews and Christians. I don’t think that is what this story is about.

Let me give you a little context for 1 Kings. The final form of the Book of Kings came about during the exile of the Israelites in Babylon. I think that is really important to understanding its stories. In the time of exile, those who are exiled often become strict about their identity, fearing assimilation with their captors. It is important for maintaining culture, tradition and religion for those who are exiled to band together, to shun any move toward syncretism or pluralism. And so a militancy about behavior and belief, a sharp drawing of the boundaries, a precise understanding of who is good and who is evil often comes about.

Exile is an experience of enormous upheaval. And there are other circumstances of upheaval where people take a similar defensive and exclusive posture.

We see that in our Book of Confessions in the PC(USA). The statements of belief in that book from the time of the Reformation—statements we say we will be guided by—are replete with horrible words about Catholics and Jews; words most of us would never say today. But in a time of enormous upheaval as the Reformation was, it was important for the Protestants—those who were leaving what had been THE church—it was important for them to say “We are not THAT.” And we know that people were killed over the things they believed—or didn’t believe—during the Reformation. I’m not condoning any of it. I am saying it is a too often a consequence in times of stress and change. It’s kind of an adolescent developmental stage—coming into our own we often draw strict lines about what we’re not and will never be (although the truth is we’ll probably discover we’re a lot more of what we think we don’t ever want to be than we want to admit).

Look at what’s happening in Germany right now. Last year more than a million refugees and migrants arrived in Germany. Now, people in Germany are asking, “What is German—and how German do you have to be to belong to Germany?”[1] And not surprisingly a very vocal answer is coming from Germany’s right-wing party that is advocating for a homogeneous, Christian and “pure” German culture that they experience to be under threat from immigrant cultures.[2]

Or look at what’s happening in our own country with political talk of building a wall at our southern border to keep Mexicans out, deporting 11 million people who are undocumented and excluding Muslims from entering our country at all.

In the story from Luke’s gospel, a Roman centurion reaches out to Jesus on behalf of his slave who was ill and near death. The centurion—a commander of a division of the Roman army—is a Gentile but he appears to worship the God of Israel and obviously knows something about Jesus. He sends some of his Jewish friends to Jesus on his behalf to ask Jesus to heal his slave. Jesus is on his way to the centurion’s house when the Roman leader sends word, “You don’t need to come to my house. I’m not worthy of that. I know how my world works. I say the word and things happen. All you need to do is say the word and my servant will be healed.” And Jesus is amazed at the faith of the centurion. And when the people returned to the centurion’s house, the servant had been restored to good health.

The centurion doesn’t trust in the miracle working power of Jesus. He trusts in Jesus’ person and Jesus’ authority. Like Elijah, Jesus too is a prophet of Israel. The centurion recognizes the Divine power at work in Jesus. Jesus speaks and with his words he subdues death-dealing forces with the power of God’s word.[3]

In this story it is a Roman centurion, one who is an enforcer of the oppressive and occupying Roman empire, who approaches Jesus. It is a Gentile, not a Jew, whose request for healing Jesus answers.

Occupation is a circumstance of upheaval and fear—a time when the boundaries can get drawn narrowly. Who can be included and who must be excluded. Who is right and who is wrong. Who is good and who is evil. In the ordinary course of things, it would not be unexpected for Jesus to have said, “I have only come for the house of Israel. I don’t go to the house of Roman centurions.” But he doesn’t. As the Roman centurion recognizes the person and power of Jesus, Jesus recognizes the person and faith of the Roman centurion.

“When the political rhetoric of [our] day is so charged with fear of those who are different—from a different country, professing a different faith, living in a different neighborhood, looking different from us, having different needs or hopes,”[4] or being required to use a different restroom—here we have a story where Jesus is amazed at the faith of a person many might say he should shun.

David Lose, the president of Lutheran Theological Seminary reminds us that all through the bible there is a theological thread running through that says “God loves everyone. God works through everyone…And we may be surprised who God chooses, who God works through, and who God commends.”

Now that’s a fairly familiar liberal theological posture. But I think even we liberal Christians can be quick to draw the lines about who God is working through and whose faith is commended by God. We too can be threatened and fearful and allow that fear to take us to places where we draw the boundaries tightly. When the boundaries are determined about who’s right and who’s wrong, I wonder if we aren’t more likely to miss the presence of God because we think we know what to expect.

I’m not suggesting sloppy thinking or an everything goes mentality.

Think back in your own experience. I imagine there was a time when there was someone—or a community of someones—whose faith surprised you; whose witness opened your heart and mind to new possibilities. Maybe it was someone who was gay or transgender and Christian. Maybe it was a woman called to ministry in the church. Maybe it was a conservative Christian. Maybe a Buddhist from Vietnam or a Muslim from Iraq or a young African American man from West Louisville.

Where have you been surprised?

Perhaps, following the way of Jesus, we can continue to cultivate our ability to be amazed, to be impressed and awed by “whom God is using and [the people who are] similarly committed to sharing the good news of God’s love for all.”[5]

*  *  *

[1] Anna Sauerbrey, “What Is German?” The New York Times, May 26, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/27/opinion/what-is-german.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col-right-region&region=opinion-c-col-right-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-right-region, accessed 26 May 2016.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Gregory Anderson Love, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word – Luke 7:1-10, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 94.

[4] http://www.davidlose.net/2016/05/pentecost-2-c-welcoming-difference/, accessed 28 May 2016.

[5] Ibid.

New Beginnings – Romans 8.15-16, Acts 2.1-21

May 15, 2016 – Pentecost Sunday

I want to tell you about the outcomes of the New Beginnings retreat that 33 of us participated in three weeks ago. It was the outgrowth of small group conversations, workshops and community conversations that have involved more than 100 different people in our congregation.

The goals of New Beginnings have been to focus our energies as a congregation, to deepen our relationships with our neighbors, to raise our profile in the community, to build on our long history of commitment to social justice and to attract new people who will become active participants ensuring the longevity and sustainability of Central Church and its mission.

The work of the retreat was to decide on the focus for our energies around education equity for the next twelve months.

How would we decide on what that focus would be? We looked at our interests as a congregation—and there are many, many interests. Maybe even more interests than there are members of our church! We talked with people in our neighborhood to find out more about the strengths and needs of our neighbors. At the retreat, we heard reports from the eleven people who had conversations with 25 people in our neighborhood and in neighborhood organizations.

Then all the retreat participants voted on the projects and ideas that came out of the neighborhood conversations and we came up with three areas, which the session has endorsed, where we will focus as a congregation for the next twelve months.

Let me pause and say this does not mean these are the only things we will do as a congregation. It does not mean we will stop the ministries of our congregation that many of you are already involved in.

But these three areas are ways that we believe God is calling us to engage as a congregation in our neighborhood now. That’s been the question of New Beginnings all along: What is it that God is calling us to do and be in this time and place?

So here are the three areas of engagement:

  • Acknowledge and mitigate systemic racism and white privilege.

We want to build intentional relationships with Simmons College, an historically black college, right across the street from us. We want to continue doing our work to understand systemic racism and white privilege. And we want to advocate and do our part to dismantle those systems of injustice in order to provide an equitable environment for all people to live, learn, work and thrive.

  • Connect and extend our relationships with the Wednesday Lunch Community.

We already have lots of neighbors who consider Central their church on Wednesdays at noon. We want to deepen our relationships with our neighbors to positively impact the quality of life in Old Louisville and to support Wednesday lunch participants as they strive to live fulfilling lives.

  • Enrich and Empower Children’s Success at School.

We already have connections with Engelhard Elementary School, three blocks away at First and Kentucky, and with Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School, to our north and west. We want to build on those relationships to be partners in meeting the needs of children, their families, and the teachers and administrators who nurture, teach and support them so that all the children in our neighborhood can succeed in school and life.

The fire colored insert in your bulletin tells you more about all of this and there’s a smaller fire colored piece of paper for you to sign up to get involved. Don’t read those pieces of paper now—I’d like you to still listen to what I have to say. But do take them with you and read them and get involved.

This whole New Beginnings process has been about trying to figure out what it is that God needs us to do and be in this time and this place.

There are parallels between us and the disciples waiting in Jerusalem in Acts 2. Both of our situations are situations of change—the world has shifted around us and what we know to do is no longer enough. So we have waited on God, asking “What do you need us to be and do in this time and this place?” And in our waiting we give space for the Spirit to show up.

We often talk about the Holy Spirit being the manifestation of the Divine who leads, guides, directs, blows open the doors and sets our hearts on fire; moving us into places where we never thought we would be and calling us to do what we couldn’t imagine we would do.

In the language of the Strengths Finder, the Spirit influences and gets us to act in service of the Divine work of love and justice in the world.

In Romans, it is the Holy Spirit who sets in us the desire to cry out to God in prayer and that we do cry out to God is a confirmation that we are children of God—adopted into God’s family. We don’t have to prove ourselves in other ways, simply reaching out to God in prayer is the affirmation that we are God’s daughters and sons.

In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit fills the disciples and they begin to speak in the native languages of the immigrants who have come from other areas of the Roman empire to live in Jerusalem. The Spirit gives power to the followers of Jesus to tell the good news to all people[1] in the language that is most meaningful and closest to their hearts.

So it is that the Spirit sets in the followers of Jesus the desire and gives us what we need to do the Divine work of love and justice in the world. So may the Spirit give us the desire and the gifts and strengths we need to do the Divine work of love and justice in this time and this place.

Amen.

* * *

[1] Margaret P. Aymer, “Acts 2.1-21: Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, Eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 17.

 

 

The Beginning in the Ending – Revelation 21.10, 21.22-22.5

May 1, 2016 – 6th Sunday of Easter

Last week’s reading from Revelation began with verse 1 from chapter 21. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” What we hear this morning from Revelation is a continued description of that new Jerusalem and of the God who has come down to live with us.

READ Revelation 21.10, 21.22-22.5

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” That’s how the bible starts in Genesis. Now, in the second to last chapter of the entire bible, we hear, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth.” So this ending in the last chapters of the last book of the bible takes us to a new beginning.

Mark has reminded us there is a lot of bad theology out there surrounding the book of Revelation.

I remember being in junior high and coming home terrified one night after a youth group meeting. Whether the book of Revelation was the intended youth group topic or whether the conversation wandered there, I remember the dire warnings from my youth leader about how terrible it would be in the “last days” and how we all had to walk the straight and narrow so that we’d be in the first bunch of people raptured instead of sticking around for the tribulation with all the sinners when everyone would suffer terribly. When I got home from youth group that night I ran into my room and threw myself on my bed and cried and cried because I was so frightened about what life was going to be like in “the end times.” It was terrifying.

I didn’t hear anything about the new heaven and new earth God was creating.

Eugene Peterson, a Presbyterian pastor and writer, says the Revelation is written by John to revive our imaginations. The Revelation is a poetic re-telling of what we’ve been reading since we opened up the bible at Genesis 1. Sometimes when we read the bible, our eyes glaze over; we get bored with the story; we think we’ve heard it all before. The Revelation of John wakes us up again. Peterson says, “Everything in the Revelation can be found in the previous sixty-five books of the Bible. The Revelation adds nothing of substance to what we already know. The truth of the gospel is already complete, revealed in Jesus Christ. There is nothing new to say on the subject. But there is a new way to say it.”[1] And then he quotes Wendell Berry who says, “The imagination is our way into the divine Imagination, permitting us to see wholly—as whole and holy—what we perceive as scattered, as order what we perceive as random.”[2]

What John writes in the Revelation comes to him in a vision—and visions are where a lot of divine revelation comes from in the biblical tradition. And, like many of the visions of the mystics throughout history, it is conveyed in deeply theological and evocative poetic language.

John says the Spirit carried him to a high mountain and showed him the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. (21.10) Some religious traditions point to heaven and say, “Won’t it be grand when we get there?” “The sufferings of this world will all pass away when we get to heaven.” But the Revelation does not reveal a picture of escaping the travails and tribulations of this world and going off to heaven. What we hear and see in Revelation is a picture of heaven coming to earth. The City of God coming to the city of earth. And not just the City but also God who comes to make a home with us. God “moved into the neighborhood” is how Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message. We hear that same language in John chapter 1 that we read at Christmas. “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” says the New Revised Standard Version.

This city that comes down from heaven is the fullness—it’s the completion of what is now. It’s the wholeness of what is now partial and broken. God has not abandoned us; God is right in our midst—as God was in the first creation.

In the City of God there is no Temple—no specific location where God is found—because God is everywhere and everything is holy. “All of life is holy and God is present in the midst of the every day, not only at special places and times.”[3] Now God is the dwelling place where we live. Jesus says a similar thing in the fourth gospel. He is preparing his disciples for what is coming and how they are to live. He says he is going away and also will return to be with them. For those who love him, he says of himself and God, “We will come and make our home with them.” (John 14.23)

But what if we don’t want God to come live with us? Visit for three days, okay. But move in? That’s not quite what we bargained for. If God moves in, think of all the house cleaning we’ll have to do. We’ll have to watch our language all the time. Move the liquor cabinet out to the garage. Not watch so many racy movies on HBO. Erase our internet search history

I imagine that some of us like the idea of heaven being off in the sky somewhere as the way out of life on earth. We can eat all the chocolate and ice cream we want and never gain a pound. Everyone will be nice and we won’t have to deal with the co-worker who gets on our nerves or the neighbor who always plays their music too loud. In heaven our children and our parents will be perfect.

But that’s not the vision Revelation holds up to revive us. (That old version of heaven where we’re all nice and float around with our angel wings sounds pretty boring to me—in addition to not being the least bit biblical.)

Perhaps part of the reality of living in the City of God is that we will come to desire what God desires. We will love what God loves and so the idea of God coming to live with us will be a glorious thing.

In the holy city there is no need for lamps or even the sun because the glory of God is our light. You might have heard something like that on Christmas Eve when we pass the candlelight from person to person until the whole sanctuary is illuminated and we read the words from Isaiah 60, “The sun shall no longer be your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night; but the Holy God will be your everlasting light.” (Isaiah 60.19) It reminds me of Paul writing to the Corinthians, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (2 Cor. 13.12) In the holy city, we will see God face to face. And unlike in other stories in the bible where one cannot see the face of God and live, now we will see the face of God and live.

All of the language about the city makes me think how much I like to be out of the city. I love being out in the woods with tall trees and quiet paths. I love being by the ocean, watching and hearing the waves slap, slap, slap against the sand; seeing the endless blue horizon. It is in those places where I particularly find renewal and refreshment.

And yet here at the end of the bible what is made new is the city—that very place that is sometimes abandoned to poverty, deterioration and hopelessness. We are not called out of the city or drawn up into heaven or even led out to the wilderness. God comes down from heaven to live with us in the holy city. And in the holy city there is a crystal clear river of life running right through the middle of it. It’s a very un-city like reality. In Louisville and Southern Indiana, we have a river running right alongside our cities but no one would call it crystal clear.

On either side of the river of life in the holy city is the tree of life which bears abundant fruit every month of the year. No matter what time of year you encounter this tree, there is food to eat. It’s an agrarian scene of abundance—again, not an image we typically associate with the city—and especially not right in the middle of the city. One more thing about the tree of life—its leaves are for healing the nations. One writer characterizes this vision as “a new urban Eden.”[4] And that’s almost an oxymoron isn’t it? The first Eden was a garden surrounded by wilderness. The new Eden is a city with a garden at its heart.

So here we are in the city. The city of Louisville. In one of the oldest parts of the city where downtown business transitions to downtown residential. Back in 1957, we built a new congregation at the growing suburban outskirts—way out on Rudy Lane—but we did not leave the city. This congregation stayed here.

And now, through our ongoing ministry and the discernment of New Beginnings, we are deepening our commitment to our neighbors. We’ll be talking more about that in the next several weeks.

Part of what John’s Revelation reminds us is that God is in the city. God is here in this city. And we are here in this city. We can see the city not as a God-forsaken place but as the very location where God comes to live and where we live with God. This is the very place where God is making all things new.

God is sovereign over not just “the idyllic beginning of humankind in the garden of Eden but also of the complexities of our most intractable problems”[5]—many of which are found in cities.

I love what one commentator on Revelation says about the city. “A city is the realization of human community, the concrete living out of interdependence as the essential nature of human life. In the individualistic ideal, each person is independent, self-reliant, doing everything for himself or herself. In a city the tasks of life are divided up, each one does a part, and the beauty of life is not a solo but a symphony.”[6] That sounds just like the Body of Christ: made up of many parts, each with a gift, a strength, to use for the common good. At times it’s messy, frustrating, ugly, and mean and also beautiful and holy and good. And I remember the refreshment and renewal I experience when I work with others for the common good—building up the commonwealth of God.

And so here we are: in the city where God is making all things new.

May we have eyes to see it. And ears to hear it. And hands and hearts and bodies to be part of what God is doing. Not in some distant time and place but here and now where God has come to live.

* * * * *

[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Reversed Thunder – The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination, (Harper San Francisco, 1988), xi.
[2] Ibid., xii.
[3] M. Eugene Boring, Revelation, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1989), 218.
[4] David L. Tiede, “The Season of Easter” in New Proclamation, Year C, 2007, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006), 52.
[5] Joseph H. Britton, “Theological Perspective: Revelation 21:10; 21:22-22:5,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 490.
[6] Boring, 219.