Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 5, 2015: Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: 2 Samuel 5:1-5,9-10  +  Psalm 48  +  2 Corinthians 12:2-10  +  Mark 6:1-13

For those of us who preach according to a lectionary, which is what we call the cycle of readings assigned for worship, we begin to mark time by the texts. Our lectionary operates on a three year cycle, so when a set of readings comes back around it’s an opportunity to reflect on the passage of time and to ask how things have changed or haven’t since the last time we heard these words together.

The readings for this morning always jump out at me because they are the texts I preached for my trial sermon here at St. Luke’s nine years ago in 2006 when I flew up from Atlanta, Georgia to interview for this call. Back then, almost a decade ago, I was drawn to verse 11 of the 6th chapter of Mark, “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” Kind of a risky verse for a trial sermon, but I reflected here on how hard it sometimes is to shake off the dust and move on. How we often come to define ourselves by our conflicts, and want to stay put and keep fighting, when what’s truly needed is for everyone to get a fresh start and to trust that God will keep working on each of us in other ways at other times by other means.

At that point in history St. Luke’s was on the cusp of launching a redevelopment, but struggling with a story that was being told about us: that we were too small, too old, and too worn out to do anything new.  The challenge for us was to knock the dust of those old struggles off of our sandals and stop trying to convince those whose minds were already made up about us that they were wrong. Instead, we needed to move on with our own journey, travel light, and see who was ready to join us for the miracle of rebirth that happened next.

Church of the Advent (Episcopal). Located at Logan Boulevard & Francisco Ave., Logan Square, Chicago.

Church of the Advent (Episcopal). Located at Logan Boulevard & Francisco Ave., Logan Square, Chicago.

When these texts came up three years ago it was also the Fourth of July weekend, and we were gathered with Church of the Advent, as we are this morning, but that year we met in their sanctuary and I was drawn to the story from Second Samuel of King David consolidating power and unifying the nation after a long series of violent sectarian struggles. “Look, we are your bone and flesh” say the tribes of Israel, after fighting hard against David and the nation of Judah, in an appeal to their shared memory of a time when Israel and Judah had been united.

At that point in time the question we were all asking had to do with how long our congregations could continue living out of the ethnic denominational identities that have defined us for centuries.  How much longer will we subdivide ourselves as the body of Christ by labels rooted in our immigrant past: Scottish Presbyterians, German Lutherans, Church of England, Dutch Reformed; or how long will we endure being segregated within our own denominations, which is really a coded way of asking how long white racism and the legacy of colonialism will keep us from doing the work of creating places and patterns of worship that are hospitable to the wide diversity of people who are truly our neighbors in this community, Anglo and Latino, life-long working class homeowners and young renters just passing through. When will we have our “look, we are your bone and flesh” moment with one another?

How are we different in the nine years that have passed?  How are our struggles the same three years later?  What is the word for us today?

As I prepare to begin my fourth journey through the three-year cycle with St. Luke’s, what has struck me the most about these texts at this time is how Jesus himself struggles with the power of prejudice to limit his ministry. Although he has just calmed a storm, exorcised a demon, healed a hemorrhaging woman and raised a dying girl to life, when he arrives in his hometown he is so boxed in by people’s preconceived notions of who he is based on their memories of who he was that he is unable to do any deed of power there (other than to lay hands on a few sick people and cure them, which is just tossed out there as an aside, to remind us that he is still Jesus after all).

How many of you have had a taste of what Jesus experiences here? It’s a fairly common occurrence, for those who leave home as young adults and experience some measure of success in the world to find that, when they go home, they chafe against the expectations of people who remember them from when they were children and define them by their past instead of their present. It’s the reason my sister and I turn into teenaged versions of ourselves at the holidays.

Jesus’ own ministry is deeply shaped by people’s prejudices about him (“is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” [Mark 6:3]), and as we will see in the next chapter of Mark when he encounters the Syrophoenician woman, by his own prejudices about other people as well. Half the miracle of that story, in which a non-Jewish woman begs Jesus to heal her child, and Jesus initially resists saying “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (7:27) is that Jesus overcomes his ethnocentrism and allows himself to be changed by the appeal of a woman who does not share his ethnicity, but definitely shares his humanity. When she challenges him, rather than condemn her, Jesus heals her child.

I think it must be divine providence that on this Independence Day weekend, as our two congregations are once again gathered for worship in this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in which many of our long-time neighbors are getting pushed out by rising rents and unbalanced development; in a month in which our nation has had to grieve the loss of nine more Black lives, lives that matter, to a White racist, who also happened to be Lutheran, who still in this day and age had easy access to guns; a month in which nearly a dozen Black churches across the South have burned to the ground with at least three confirmed as arson and other investigations still pending; that the scriptures once again ask us to examine how our prejudices have stood in the way of the deeds of power God is dying to accomplish in and for us.

When Jesus, the descendent of David, the child of Mary, the one who called himself the “Son of Man,” a title sometimes translated as “the Human One” who has no place to lay his head yet makes his home in every heart comes home to you, to us, to Logan Square, to the city of Chicago, to the not-quite-yet United States of America, what deeds of power can he accomplish here and how do our prejudices about who he is, and who we are, stand in the way of who God is and what God longs to see in our lives and in the whole world?

It’s perhaps easier, though no less painful or shameful, to name the ways our prejudices stand in opposition to God’s healing and justice-making love on a societal level.  We can see how our culture’s love of money and power have manifested in the manufacture and sale of guns, in the over-development of military power and the under-development of human potential, especially in poor and working-class communities, disproportionately communities of color, across our nation. We can see how our ethic of retribution over reconciliation has led to a system of mass incarceration and built a pipeline that starts in our schools, passes through our penitentiaries, and follows ex-convicts the rest of their lives in records that can never be expunged.

But I can’t see inside your heart, and you can’t see inside mine. So I don’t know how your prejudices are standing in the way of God’s healing and justice-making love in your life. I don’t know how our many and varied histories intersect in you in ways that make it hard for you to see the full humanity of your co-workers or your neighbors, your parents or your children, your spouse or even yourself. Yes, even your relationship to your own self has been beaten and bruised by the forces of racism and sexism and heterosexism and classism and nationalism and colonialism and capitalism so that you can’t, none of us can, really see ourselves clearly anymore.

There’s not much humility in our national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner, but there is in the song we sang as we entered worship this morning. O Beautiful for Spacious Skies sounds like one of the psalms, as it sings its praises for the beauty of creation, for the achievements of the nation’s sons and daughters, but finally as it petitions God to “mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.” It is a confession that our prejudices can’t be draped with a flag and forgotten, but that our union is flawed and can only be mended by the amazing grace of God, which meets us exactly where we are and yet calls us to become more than we’ve ever been before.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, August 11, 2013: Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:  Isaiah 1:1,10-20  +  Psalm 50:1-8,22-23  +  Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16  +  Luke 12:32-40

The four girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL.

The four girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL.

Fifty years ago next month, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had the tragic occasion to deliver a eulogy at the funeral service for three of the four little girls killed in the bombing of 16th St. Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963.  In his speech, which is remembered by history as “Eulogy for the Martyred Children,” King spoke of the redemptive power in the blood of those murdered children.  He said,

“God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city. The holy Scripture says, ‘A little child shall lead them.’ The death of these little children may lead our whole Southland from the low road of man’s inhumanity to man to the high road of peace and brotherhood. These tragic deaths may lead our nation to substitute an aristocracy of character for an aristocracy of color. The spilled blood of these innocent girls may cause the whole citizenry of Birmingham to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future. Indeed this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience.”

That was fifty years ago, and this morning I want us to ask ourselves if, indeed, the innocent blood of those four little girls has caused the South, the North, and the whole of these United States to come to terms with its conscience.

Trayvon Martin w/ hoodieIn an article titled, “Why White Evangelical Churches Don’t Wear Hoodies,” published last Friday on the Huffington Post’s religion blog, the Rev. Mae Elisa Cannon, an Evangelical Covenant pastor and graduate of North Park Theological Seminary just three miles north of here, writes,

“Over the past few weeks, Black churches across the United States grieved and lamented the Zimmerman verdict of ‘not guilty.’ … Many churches of color and others joined in solidarity with Trayvon Martin by wearing their hoodies to worship. Church services addressed concerns of race, the legal system, gun violence, and issues of justice within communities of color.

On the other hand, the vast majority of white Evangelical churches haven’t been talking about the Trayvon Martin case on Sunday mornings. Besides a brief mention and perhaps a prayer the focal point of the Sunday sermon hasn’t been about racial injustice…”

A little further in her article, Cannon describes the reaction Lisa Sharon Harper had to the Zimmerman verdict.  Harper is an African American evangelical who works for Sojourners, a national Evangelical organization working on  racial and social justice, peacemaking, and environmental stewardship.

“Devoted to the Scriptures, Harper takes to heart the words of Isaiah, ‘Learn to do right; seek justice.’ (Isa. 1:17).  In a recent interview, she described her response upon learning the news of the verdict: ‘Shocked. Absolutely shocked … I went to sleep that night feeling numb. I slept hard that night. Then, as soon as I woke up the next morning, I started crying. Weeping. It hit me. The reality of the moment really hit me.’”

Fifty years after the nation was jolted out of its racist slumber by the deaths of four little girls in Birmingham, Alabama we find ourselves divided once more by profoundly different reactions to the death of an African American child.  Jurors in Florida, a state with laws that make it possible for a person to kill another person if they feel threatened, to “stand their ground,” struggled to determine whose hands were stained with Trayvon Martin’s blood.

The book of Isaiah opens with the prophet Isaiah speaking as if he were prosecuting a case in a different kind of courtroom, the heavenly court:

“Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the Lord has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me … What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; … When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.” (Isa. 1:2,11a,12,15)

The issue of accountability is as complex today as it was for the people of Israel in the time of Isaiah’s prophetic ministry.  Imagine how confusing Isaiah’s righteous anger would have sounded to the average Israelite, the kind of person who rose early, worked hard all day long, paid his taxes and made his offerings at the Temple.

“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats … bringing incense is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation — I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.” (Isa. 1:11,13-14)

It’s easy enough for us, reading through the text from a safe distance, to join with Isaiah in denouncing the hypocrisy of his time, of rulers and peoples who gather to worship God with their lips but not with their lives. From the perspective of that everyday Israelite, however, it’s not so easy to understand what is being asked for.

Those people, like Ryan and Gina who have brought their daughter, Chiara, for the appointed festival of baptism, were simply trying to live their lives with some sense of reverence for God in light of a tradition that was passed down generation after generation.  Those people’s offerings in the temple, like Chiara’s baptism this morning, were a way of keeping faith with the traditions that had shaped the identity not only of those individuals, but of a community, of an entire nation.

Like the ancient Israelites, we have words and actions we perform as signs of commitment to the God who calls people out of slavery; who brings people into lands of abundance; who restores the exiled; who heals the sick and comforts the dying; who brings new life to people and places left for dead.  We have even incorporated Isaiah’s critique of empty religion into our own rituals, so that as Chiara was baptized this morning we asked her parents to promise before God and before the whole Church that they would raise Chiara to proclaim Christ through word and deed, to care for others and the world God made, and to work for justice and peace.

But doesn’t Isaiah’s spirit push back against our sense of satisfaction? After all, so many baptized people in the world, so many promises made in sanctuaries just like these, and still so many eulogies being preached at so many funerals.

In describing the difference in perception that shapes the radically different response to public events like the Zimmerman verdict by White communities and communities of color, Mae Elise Cannon cites the work of Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, authors of Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America.

“Emerson and Smith describe the findings of thousands of phone interviews and hundreds of face-to-face interviews they conducted for their sociological study. In general, the found, White evangelicals view the world through the paradigm of rugged individualism, relationships, and anti-structuralism.  Black evangelicals also view the world through a lens of rugged individualism and relationships, but they are not anti-structural.  Rather, they understand the impact of systems and structures on whole people groups.”

In this regard, I think the historic Black church, and communities of color in general, may be better situated to understand the voice of the prophet Isaiah, who is not, really, addressing the people of Israel as individuals, but as a community, as a nation.

The difficulty of a ruling like the one in the George Zimmerman trial is that the jurors were able to find him innocent under the law, even though we know that individual jurors felt certain that he was guilty in some obvious sense.  That he was culpable for the death of Trayvon Martin, even if he was not held accountable.

It is that gap, the gap between culpability and accountability, through which the stain of a single death spreads out to mark the community around it.  It is the tragic gaps in our systems of justice, in our laws, in our public policy, in our sentencing guidelines, in our penal system — systems none of us own individually, but all of us own together — that leave us praying with blood-soaked hands.

Tomorrow morning I’ll be leaving for Pittsburgh for the 2013 ELCA Churchwide Assembly.  At this assembly, our denomination will be debating whether or not to adopt a social statement on Criminal Justice that has been in the works for six years now.  Some of you took part in our own study of an early draft of the proposed social statement a couple of years ago.  The proposed social statement, in its current form, makes the following basic points:

  • The ELCA is prompted to speak and to act because so many cries of suffering and despair emerge from the criminal justice system — from victims, the incarcerated, their families, communities, those wrongly convicted, those who work in the system — and have not been heard.
  • Drawing from Holy Scripture, this church holds up a vision of God’s justice that is wondrously richer and deeper than human imitations and yet is a mirror in which justice in this world, God’s world, must always be assessed.
  • A fundamental transformation of mindset about criminal justice is required that challenges the logic of equating more punitive measures with more just ones. Individuals must be held accountable, but every person in the criminal justice system deserves to be seen and treated as a member of human communities, created in the image of God and worthy of appropriate and compassionate response.
  • Because mass incarceration causes significant harms, both personal and social, the ELCA strongly urges those who make and administer correctional policies to take all appropriate measures to limit the use of incarceration as a sanction for criminal offenses.  Toward that end, this statement identifies three specific paths: pursue alternatives to incarceration, reform sentencing laws and policies, and closely scrutinize national drug policy.
  • Four other imperatives also require vigorous action from policy makers: the criminal justice system must acknowledge the disparities, and address the implicit and explicit racism that persists within; it must recognize the special needs of juvenile offenders; it must also stop the privatization of prison facilities; and finally, it must foster the full reintegration of ex-offenders into community.

(from the ELCA’s “The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries. A Proposed Social Statement on Criminal Justice. Brief Overview”)

It was Dr. King’s hope, and the prayer of every parent and person of conscience who gathered to mourn the loss of those four little girls, that those “tragic deaths may lead our nation to substitute an aristocracy of character for an aristocracy of color.”  Dr. King suggested that our nobility derives from how we act rather than how we look, and in this judgment he echoes the judgment of the prophet Isaiah, who said,

“Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isa. 1:16-17)

I would ask you to pray for our church, the ELCA, as we gather in assembly this coming week.  Pray for the Holy Spirit to guide us in all wisdom, so that the divisions that characterize our nation might be set aside for the sake of a probing, prayerful, and prophetic statement from the church God has called to the world God has created, and loves, and is laboring to restore.  Pray that the spilled blood of too many children might find a voice in our assembly, so that their deaths might not be in vain. Pray, most of all, that at the end of all our debates and our voting that the church’s action would be more than words, more than one more burdensome solemn assembly.  That whatever social statements we pass would find their ultimate expression in the lives we lead and the actions we take as a community gathered and sent for the sake of the world.

In Jesus’ name,

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, June 2, 2013: Second Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: 1 Kings 18:20-39  +  Psalm 96  +  Galatians 1:1-12  +  Luke 7:1-10

Have you ever wanted to call down fire?

I’m talking about God’s wrath.  God’s judgment.  Proof that God is God.  That the so-called way it is, is not the way it is supposed to be, and that there is a higher authority than any bureaucracy can produce, than any government can select, than any church can own.  That there is a God who cares about what happens to the world God created, and that we are going to be called to account for our management and mismanagement of God’s creation, our treatment and mistreatment of God’s people.

Have you ever looked at the world and wanted to call down fire?

I have, and recently at that.  Months and months of organizing for marriage equality in the State of Illinois, and in the end not even a vote?  Just silence from the Illinois House.  I wanted fire.  A fresh tally of victims to gun violence here in Chicago last Memorial Day weekend, six dead and eleven wounded, as nearby as Humboldt Park; and in response, the House breaks its silence to push forward a carry and conceal bill that would make it easier for people to walk the streets of our neighborhoods with deadly weapons?  I wanted fire.

And you have cried out for fire as well, I know.  You are battling bureaucracies that put children in harm’s way.  You are fighting for the rights of the weak, the poor, the hungry, the disabled.  You are watching as big business treats your co-workers and yourselves like cogs in a machine.  You are tending to the bodies and minds of the uninsured, and seeing the impacts of generational poverty on entire families.  You are calling for an end to war in a country obsessed with violence.  You are teaching in classrooms where children have gone without food, without support, without safety, and you are being told year after year to do more with less.

I can only imagine how badly and how often you must pray for God’s fire to come down and burn away the red tape, the apathy, the machine, the system, the guns, the drones, and all the wickedness of this world.

Today we begin a summer long series focusing on the prophets of Israel, and for this season we will be a School of the Prophets.  You may remember that two weeks ago it was Pentecost Sunday, and we heard these words from the book of Acts,

In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:17-18)

Then, last Sunday, as we celebrated the mystery of the Holy Trinity, we affirmed the Church’s faith that there is only one God, but who is known as and in community.  We heard from the gospel of John these words from Jesus,

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, [it] will guide you into all the truth; for [the Spirit] will not speak on [its] own, but will speak whatever [it] hears, and will declare to you the things that are to come. [The Spirit] will glorify me, because [it] will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that [God, our Parent] has is mine.  For this reason I said that [the Spirit] will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:12-15)

In truth, ever since Easter we have been studying texts that make it clear to us that one of the meanings, one of the implications of Christ’s resurrection is that the Holy Spirit of God has been set free in the world; that the Spirit has a message for the world that needs a messenger; and that God’s messenger is the church, the baptized body of Christ in the world.  Jesus said, “the Spirit will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:15) and “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” (John 14:12)

And then, like Elijah whom we meeting again for the first time this morning and who eventually is taken up into heaven in that chariot of fire, Jesus seems to withdraw from the story leaving its next chapter in our hands.  We are inheritors of a mission, a commission, and a message.  Living in the last days, in a Pentecostal epoch, we are now called to be prophets, and this is our school.

As we learn about our calling, our ministry as prophets, we can learn from the prophets of Israel, in whose tradition the Lord Jesus Christ stood, whose words and wisdom would have been his bread and butter as a young man in occupied Israel in the time of the Roman Empire.

Jesus obviously would have known the stories of Elijah, who lived in Israel during the reign of King Ahab, who ruled four generations after the reign of King Solomon.  King Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, are remembered for bringing the worship of foreign gods back to Israel, in particular the god known as Baal.

It’s difficult to know what the actual religious beliefs and practices of the neighboring nations who worshipped Baal were, since most of the information we have comes from these biblical texts that aren’t concerned with religious pluralism and multiculturalism.  But I think we would be missing the point if we simply read this story as a warning about other religions.  What’s being contested here isn’t the number of followers each deity, Yahweh or Baal, can muster.  What is at stake is the worldview they represent within the story of Israel’s relationship with God.

Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes,

There is no doubt that in the Bible, an especially in this cluster of narratives, Baalism is heavily caricatured in Yahwistic representation.  Indeed, we have only the caricature so that the narrative is not, and does not intend to be, an evenhanded exposition.  The caricature that dominates Israel’s imagination is that Baalism is a socioreligious system rooted in the capacity to secure life for self by the manipulation and control of the gifts of the creator, by self-centered management that inevitably leads to an antineighbor ethic.  Thus it must not be thought that the contest concerns mere religious symbols or slogans; it is rather a deep and costly conflict between two contrasting perspectives on reality that are deeply rooted theologically and highly visible in the life and social practice of the community. (Brueggemann, Walter.  Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: 1 & 2 Kings, 2000. p. 219)

In other words, the problem with the worship of Baal isn’t that God’s honor is tarnished, or that God’s feelings are hurt, because people are worshipping some other god.  It is instead that, what the worship of Baal represents — at least in these stories — is a turning away from the ethical and moral character of the God of Israel, an ethic of care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger; and ethic that took form in these stories in the person of a king who had first been a shepherd, who cared for God’s people by bringing them together to love and care for one another.

The worship of Baal represents a different kind of governance which leads to a different kind of community and a different kind of world, one in which power is used to secure wealth for the wealthy, and the lives of the workers and the weak are considered the cost of doing business.  It is the kind of world Jesus knew everything about, growing up under Roman rule.  It is the kind of world we know everything about today, living in the heart of a global empire.

Elijah’s first prophetic action is to declare a drought.  This is more than an agricultural crisis, this is a sign that the nation has set itself again God.  In these ancient times, the king was understood to be the rain-maker, the one who assured wealth and prosperity by guiding the nation in accordance with God’s will for the people.  The absence of rain is a sign that God’s favor is absent from Ahab’s rule.  Rather than repenting, Ahab and Jezebel scour the nation looking for the prophet Elijah whose words of judgment are undermining their power and authority.  Finally, after three years of drought, the conflict has come to a head in the story we read this morning.  Elijah faces Ahab and challenges the prophets of Baal to a contest.  They will set offerings on altars to each of their respective gods, and they will see which offering is consumed by divine fire.

The beginning of the match tells us something important about what God through Elijah is really trying to achieve.  In the face of royal power and a legion of enemy priests, Elijah turns and speaks to the people, who are the actual objects of God’s concern.  He asks them, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?  If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” (1 Kings 18:21)

This simple question, buried at the beginning of a spectacle, is the heart of the matter.  The question always before God’s people is, in what god do you actually put your trust?  Is is the god of the paycheck or the inheritance that will really take care of you?  Is it the god of shrewd decisions and hard work that will provide for you and yours?  Is it the god of the right family or the right connections that will give you an advantage?  Is it the god of cynicism and low expectations that will protect you from the dangers of wanting more for your life?

Or is it the God known in community as community, who does not try to protect God’s own self from danger or harm, but is willing to endure every trial and humiliation to free the creation and its many peoples from patterns of life, systems of domination, that threaten to destroy us all?

Which god do you worship, and how?

Tellingly, the people do not say a word.  They are as silent as our lawmakers, waiting to see how the chips will fall.

Which gods do we worship?

Then the contests begin, and we begin to see the price paid for worshipping other gods.  As Elijah cracks jokes and taunts the priests of Baal (“Cry aloud!  Surely he is a god; either he is meditating or he is on a journey, or perhaps he must be awakened.”), they begin to mutilate themselves.  They injure themselves by cutting their flesh with swords and lances until they are covered in their own blood.

What price do we pay for chasing after the gods who cannot save us?  We pay with our own lives.  The paycheck ends. The inheritance is spent. Our decisions are exposed as dreams. Our bodies fail. Our families turn their backs on us. Our social networks are a mile wide and an inch deep. Our attempt to escape notice works, and we end up invisible in our own lives.  The gods we invent for ourselves can never save us, but we will spend our lives, we will pour out our lifeblood, chasing after them.

After Baal’s priests fail to summon their god, it’s Elijah’s turn.  Again, he gives his attention to the people, not the king, not the other priests.  He builds an altar for his sacrifice by placing twelve stones representing the twelve tribes of Israel on top of one another.  He reminds them of their history, that out of many peoples they were made one.  That out of many nations, they were made one nation.  That their strength came from the ways that they leaned on each other, built on each other, rested on each other.  Elijah creates a symbol of the underlying reality, that we the people together are the altar where God’s holiness appears.

Then Elijah drenches that altar, that sign of God’s people, three times with water — a baptism for that which is being offered to God, and assurance that what will happen next is no accident, no random spark falling on dry wood.

Finally, Elijah prays not for himself, but for the people he has been trying to reach. “Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back” (1 Kings 18:37).  And the Lord God answers the words of that prayer by sending down fire to consume the offering, the wood, the altar, the earth and even the water.

When I am angry at the world, as I have been these last few days, I want to call down God’s fire to burn up the heartless bureaucrats, the cowardly legislators, the violent warmongers, the absent parents.  But God’s fire does not consume offerings made to absentee deities.  Instead, God’s fire comes to rest on the altar of God’s own people and takes what we are willing to offer, transforming those offerings into signs that God’s Spirit is still at work in the world, moving toward us and through us and out into the world for the sake of healing, and liberation, and mercy, and justice.

Rain and Fire

God’s flames, the ones that fell on God’s altar, the ones that raised Elijah to heaven in his chariot, the ones that appeared above the apostles’ heads that Pentecost morning are signs of God’s prophetic word, given to God’s prophets.  We pray for that fire each time we gather, not to destroy the forces that oppose us, but to kindle in us a passion to tell God’s truth to a world burdened by false gods.

Oh, God, take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them, and take our hearts and set them on fire.

Amen.

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