Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Tragedy of Power or the Power to Love?

  1 Kings 21:1-21
It was John Dalberg-Acton, or Lord Acton, English historian in the late 19th century who said, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely”.  This now famous phrase was part of a dictum that he wrote denouncing Pope Pius (9th) IX’s dissemination of the doctrine of the papal infallibility, or in other words very simply put, the pope is never wrong.  Lord Acton is saying that absolute power will never produce honest practices. 
When one person has that much power in his or her hands it is quite possible that eventually they will fall into corrupt ways of business, of life, of relating to people.  Perhaps if I mention Watergate, Enron, BP, Bernie Madoff, even fabled King Midas you begin to get the type of power that Lord Acton was referring to.  History is full of these kinds of sad and unfortunate stories where power ultimately goes to someone’s head and the use of a legal system is used to harm others who are expendable to the person who has and who wants more power.  Ethics, morals and principles are thrown out of the window.  But this is nothing new.
Two weeks ago I started a sermon series on the prophet Elijah from the first and second book of Kings.  As you remember God called him to prophecy during the reign of King Ahab and his wife Jezebel around 860 BCE, two very selfish, disturbing and Baal-worshipping people who ruled the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  Elijah didn’t have it so easy but prophets never do.  One of my Old Testament professors began his lecture on prophets by saying, ‘be glad your daddy wasn’t a prophet!’
Let me reintroduce you to King Ahab and his co-conspirator Jezebel!  Today’s story of this royal couple will send a chill up your spine and if it doesn’t well, then….see me later.  It is an ancient illustration of a powerful person and his tragic failure to use his power for good.
The title of this particular passage from 1 Kings is ‘Naboth’s Vineyard’.  Ahab lives in Samaria, the capital of Northern Kingdom and he has a winter palace up north in the Jezreel Valley where it tends to be a bit warmer. That’s where Naboth lived.  Here now 1 Kings Chapter 21 beginning at the first verse….
Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. And Ahab said to Naboth, ‘Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.’ But Naboth said to Ahab, ‘The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.’ 
Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him; for he had said, ‘I will not give you my ancestral inheritance.’ He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.
 His wife Jezebel came to him and said, ‘Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?’ He said to her, ‘Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, “Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it”; but he answered, “I will not give you my vineyard.” ’ His wife Jezebel said to him, ‘Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.’
So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. She wrote in the letters, ‘Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, “You have cursed God and the king.” Then take him out, and stone him to death.’ The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them.
Just as it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, ‘Naboth cursed God and the king.’ So they took him outside the city, and stoned him to death. Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, ‘Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.’
As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, ‘Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead.’ As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.
Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession.
You shall say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: Have you killed, and also taken possession?’ You shall say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.’
Ahab said to Elijah, ‘Have you found me, O my enemy?’  He answered, ‘I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, I will bring disaster on you; I will consume you, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel.’
That’s some story.  You see Naboth was a good citizen, he tended his vineyard that had been passed down to him from his ancestors. He was not just being stubborn or obstinate when he refused to hand over his vineyard to Ahab.  Israelites tried to prevent inherited property from passing out of the family, it’s more detailed than that but for now, Naboth had very valid reasons for not wanting to sell his property to Ahab.
And Ahab, what a baby!  I mean, come on, he went to bed and wouldn’t eat because he didn’t get his way?  He sounds like some sullen and pouty two year olds I’ve known!  But his beloved Jezebel, his ‘caretaker’, seeks him out, she just doesn’t let him pout.
Now knowing conniving Jezebel’s devotion to the Baal’s, her addiction to power, and her devious nature, this is story takes a nose dive that is not good.  She very underhandedly hires two hit men to take Naboth out.  Scoundrels!  Jezebel!  And a very great injustice!  Naboth loses his life in this convoluted set up and Ahab as we see takes the land.
Jezebel, in this story, is the embodiment of a certified sociopath; she’s without any conscience, scruples or ethics.  Sadly we know there are people like that in this world.  But along comes Eliahu, Elijah.  Remember him?  This is a sermon series on the prophet Elijah.  Elijah is sent to Ahab who by now is in his ‘new’ field and Elijah is sent to let Ahab know that what he did has some very grave consequences.
And here ends the story…but we are left hanging.  Why? Because it’s not an ending that we want or clamor for.  The t’s haven’t been crossed nor the i’s dotted.  No one looks good or I should say innocent except for Naboth who was the victim in all of this.
This is not an easy text to sit with because we want justice and there isn’t any.  We want a new day, a new regime but for now it appears that Ahab (or Jezebel) is victorious.  Ultimately we want a God of love but for now God exacts punishment.  And please do remember what I said about an ‘Old Testament angry God’.  We look at this scripture in the context from which it was written and how people in the 8th century BCE. 
Elijah is sent by God to condemn Ahab.  Elijah had a choice, he could have run away from God but didn’t.  He was called.  He believed.  He did what God asked him to do even though he didn’t like God’s message or what he had to do.  This message is harsh….although we do know that God has told us not to covet, and not to kill, and not to worship false gods.  It’s spelled out pretty clearly in the 10 Commandments. This is the tragedy of power, when the actions and intent of a person like Ahab are materialistic, self-aggrandizing and with so little regard for life itself. We must not be complicit in the evil perpetuated by the Jezebel’s and Ahab’s of this world.
All of our actions have consequences.  From the clothes on our back, to the food we eat, the way in which we conduct our lives – our actions effect others. We know sweatshops thrive.  We can buy fair trade.  We can be wasters of energy.  We can be consumers of clean and efficient energy. We can hoard our resources.  We can share with others what God has given us.  The choices we make have the potential to induce a tragedy of power or the power to love.   
Discerning between the two is the demanding work of faith. 
Today we will be performing the exacting work of faith as we conduct business at our Semi-Annual meeting.  There are no “those people who are trying to” (you fill in the blank).  We are not divided into factions or camps because to look at it that way has already divided the church which is your greatest fear.
Rather it is all of us, together with differing opinions that can be expressed openly, with the greatest integrity, without anger or malice.  It is not ‘they are trying to do this, or they are trying to do that’, it is how are we going to come to consensus in the spirit of collaboration to proceed into our future as a fiscally responsible, Holy Spirit infused church.  We are the body of Christ and we will seek to find the face and heart of Christ in all that we do.
My role as your Interim Senior Pastor is to hold up a mirror so that you can see more clearly.  Some of you will walk away today content and some discontent, that’s the nature of consensus.  However remembering that we all love this church, we all want to right in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ hopefully will give us the strength to persevere through this challenge and envision a stronger church for the future. 
Just as we have been given the power to hate, we have also been given the power to love.  The power to see. The power to hope. The power to dream that God’s justice will flourish.   The choice is up to you.
May God grant to us the strength and power to love more often, to love deeply, to love through challenging times as well as through times of abundance and grace.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A Touch of Faith, A Touch of Healing

Mark 5: 21-43
 You might think that in the Gospel of Mark all Jesus does is to get into that old wooden fishing boat with his disciples, catch a cool breeze and cruise to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, not a very long distance really.  He does that a lot but not because he was an avid sailor!  It was because throughout the Gospel Jesus is on the move; here, there and everywhere taking his message, miracles and ministry wherever it needed to go and to whomever needed or wanted to hear it, and, honestly, every so often he needed some ‘down’ time which the sanctuary of that maritime vessel provided him.

Today’s float over the sea was specific.   Jesus leaves the country of the Gerasenes which was Gentile territory and crosses over to the Jewish side of the country.  He’s now back among ‘his people’, fellow Jews, which makes a difference in this story in whom, by Jewish purity laws, Jesus could touch and not touch, who was clean and unclean. 

Hear now the fifth chapter of Mark beginning at the twenty-first verse:
When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”
So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”
Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.”
And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.  Amen.
Jesus embarks from the boat and immediately is surrounded, even crowded in by people.  Jairus falls at Jesus’ feet and out of sheer desperation begs Jesus to come to his house and heal his daughter.  His poor twelve year old daughter was at death’s door, she hardly had a start in life and now she was so sick, in fact, she was dying.    I think we have all been in that same place as Jairus, that is at the point of desperation when one of our loved ones or perhaps ourselves have been gravely ill.  How fervent and impassioned, perhaps even pleading our prayers become for a miracle of healing.  We hope.  We trust.  We pray.  Maybe we even fall to our knees like Jairus. Jesus takes note and follows Jairus to his home.

But the crowds.  How hot and humid it was, the rays of the Galilean sun were relentless.  And the people pushed and pressed in on Jesus as he slowly tried to make his way to Jairus’ home.  They weren’t making much progress when Jesus felt the power serge from him.  He turned around and said, “Who touched the hem of my robe?”  The crowd halted, a hush gripped the air.

Unbelievable!  Unbelievable the disciples thought, here we are in the middle of all these people and Jesus could isolate and feel one little touch?  Unbelievable.  What about Jairus’ daughter?  We thought we were on the way to his house.  You see by now Jesus was used to interruptions.  We can appreciate that right?  You think you’ve got your entire day planned and boom, something happens and your agenda goes right out of the window.  In ministry we call it, the Ministry of Interruptions because interruptions happen at the most inopportune times and it’s usually in those distracted moments that God’s incredible grace pops up and asks us to pay attention and give of ourselves.
The woman, already feeling life flow back in her just from touching Jesus robe, cowered because she knows she did the unthinkable.  She, a hemorrhaging, ritually unclean woman touched Jesus and in that touch told him the whole story and truth of her life.  It was a remarkable witness to her faith.  “What faith!” Jesus says. “Go be about your business in peace, you’ve been healed.”  If only healing were that simple, right?

The crowd was stunned, and confused and Jesus was still speaking and…. I wonder if he had forgotten about Jairus’ daughter?  Word filters through the crowd that the daughter had died, no need for Jesus to come.  Jesus overhears. And, as theologian and preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Jesus preaches his shortest sermon ever: Do not fear, only believe”.  He hadn’t forgotten after all. 

“This daughter of Jairus is only sleeping, she’s not dead like you say” Jesus says.  Jesus risks ostracism once again from his own people as he crosses the threshold of her room and goes to her death bed. 

He reaches out and takes her young, limp hand and says quietly, “Talitha cum!”.  “Little girl, get up”.  And she does.  And, as typical 12 year olds would do she probably rubbed her eyes, giggled and chowed down what she was given to eat and asked if she could go to tell her girlfriends.  
 These two miracle stories hold so much for us to reflect upon.  A story within a story wherein both stories have several parallels which would have deepened the interest for first century readers.  Back in the day, miracle workers were a dime a dozen.  Jesus, of course, was not some two bit magician but gave all of the credit to God for his work.  His powers and ability to work miracles came from above.  The synagogue authorities were very concerned with the religious laws that Jesus seemed always to be defying.  Jesus was not so concerned that he was ‘breaking’ the law.  Rather he believed that he was expanding, recasting, amending, and revisioning the law for a more just world for everyone.  So in addition to the miraculous healing there were all sorts of nuanced meanings embedded in the stories.

Jairus’ daughter and the hemorraghing woman’s stories have fairytale endings.  They are lucky enough to receive full and total healing direct from the source.   But we know that full and total even dramatic physical healings such as these rarely occur like that.   So what happens when our expectation for healing doesn’t happen or our healing turns out to be much different then what we were hoping for?  That question begs a more profound question and that is, what does it mean to be healed?

All of us are in need of healing from time to time in our lives.  From a physical healing of a devastating illness to an emotional healing from the stinging effect of a lost relationship.  From a scarred healing of a traumatic incident to the mental healing and health from prolonged years of abuse perhaps even we are in need of healing from division’s and disarray due to a lack of clarity.  None of us will escape life without some sort of hurt or sickness in it but with God’s attentive touch we will heal.

It just may not be in the way that we have been hoping and praying for.  It’s those doggone expectations once again that will trip us up every time.  Sometimes we may have to look for the way in which God heals us in the less obvious corners of our lives with a touch of faith bolstering us so that we can open ourselves up to other possibilities for living.

Franklin, a man with diabetes, I met him when I did some chaplaincy work at an area hospital.  He was on and off, mostly off about controlling his diabetes.  He said he prayed hard and even promised God with ALL of his heart that he would change and do what he needed to do to get the diabetes under control.  He was hurt, angry and bitter and felt let down by God when he found out his foot need to be amputated.  He thought God had no listened to him or just didn’t care about him. 

Well, the weeks and months of rehabilitation proved to be a physical and spiritual healing however.  He realized that even without a foot or ‘complete’ body that his life was whole and filled with blessing.  Now he participates in walks for diabetes and even does some education for others.  Healing came to Franklin, just not in the way that he wanted…but he got so much more.  He witnessed to others of the healing power of Jesus Christ.  He was, in fact, inspirational. 

John Pilch a Scripture professor at Georgetown University has done a lot of writing on healing and particular, healing in the New Testament.  He says, “Healing is the restoration of meaning to people’s lives no matter what their physical condition might be.” 

After something devastating happens to us, after recovering from serious disease, after we have been lifted out of the depths of depression something changes.  After the woman stopped hemorrhaging and the blood flow was restored, after the girl was raised from the dead, their lives were changed.   Healing does occur and life is not the same.  We are changed.  We see differently.  We hear differently.  Things that never mattered before now do and things that mattered before we find out are really not that important.  Life takes on a different meaning and it’s something that only God can provide.  Be open to the many ways in which God heals and makes better our lives.  Therein lies the miracle of healing for our lives.

Photos of the Sea of Galilee taken by Suzanne Wagner

Monday, June 10, 2013

Eliahu ha-Navi

1 Kings 17:8-24
Who has picked out your summertime reading?  There is nothing like having a good and juicy book to read while you sit comfortably in an Adirondack chair or laying in a hammock.  Well there is nothing better than summertime preaching because you can sit back and hear about the sagas found in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) or you can focus on the Jesus stories up in the Galilee. 

So you can think of the next few weeks as a sermon series and I’ll be sharing with you the saga of  the Prophet Elijah.  At the close of a Passover Seder, Jews open a door entreating the prophet Elijah to return soon with the Messiah.  When they do this they usually sing a song about Elijah:
Eliahu ha-Navi,
Eliahu ha-Tishbi
Eliahu ha-Gi’ladi
Bim’hera yavoh aylenu
Im Mashiach ben David,
Bim’hera yavoh aylenu
Im Mashiach ben David,

Elijah the Prophet, Elijah the Tishbite, Elijah the Giladite, may he soon come to us with the Messiah, son of David.

Eliahu, or Elijah is one of the great prophets of Israel in the Hebrew Bible.  He is known as a healer, a miracle worker, and a hero who stood up against evil kings and the false prophets of the Canaanite god, Baal.  The next few weeks we will focus on some of the stories about Elijah, King Ahab and his wife Jezebel until finally we hear the story of how Elijah passes his mantel on to Elisha who takes up the reigns as Yahweh or God’s prophet.

I do want to issue a word of warning – often the ‘God of the Old Testament’ is viewed as an angry God.  Don’t go there.  We need to understand these texts in the time in which they were written which is to say, it was a time when ethical monotheism was taking hold amidst a plethora of many other pantheistic religions each believing in many gods, with a small g and it was common belief that the actions of the people moved a god to do all sorts of things to them because of their behavior. 

The God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament who is a God of salvation throughout time.

 Chapter 17 in the book of 1 Kings begins with Elijah’s announcement to King Ahab of a drought.  Ahab ruled the Northern Kingdom of Israel from 869-850 BCE.  He was not a nice king; none of them really were in the Northern Kingdom.  Ahab was the worst though.  In fact in 1 Kings 16 it says, “Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him.”  You see Ahab married Jezebel from Sidon. (Which is today, Lebanon) She was an outsider to Israel and brought with her the many gods of Baal.  She was bad news all the way around!!! 

The announcement of a drought was clearly a challenge to Ahab’s poor judgment and the Baal’s power. So, as you might imagine Elijah had to ‘get out of Dodge’ quickly after he issued the bad news.  God sent him first to Wadi Cherith where ravens brought him bread and he drank from the wadi, but then that dried up so Plan B had to be put into effect.  So here we begin today’s scripture….

“Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’ So he set out and went to Zarephath.”

“When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, ‘Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.’ As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, ‘Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.’ But she said, ‘As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.’”

“Elijah said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.’”

“She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.” 

“After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. She then said to Elijah, ‘What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!’”

“But he (Elijah) said to her, ‘Give me your son.’ He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. He cried out to the Lord, ‘O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?’ Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, ‘O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.’

The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, ‘See, your son is alive.’ So the woman said to Elijah, ‘Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.’”  Amen, here ends our scripture.

It’s curious that Elijah was sent out of Israel and into Sidon itself the very place where Jezebel hailed from, heartland of the Baal cult.  And this woman had no means of economic support because she was a widow and her gods, the gods of Baal, weren’t protecting her. That’s a real bad place to be in.  So she takes what’s left of her meal and oil and is going to make a final meal for her and her son.  There was nothing left for them, they were facing a drought of their own and soon their lives would dry up too.

What Elijah did took a lot of chutzpah, but then again he believed in the God of Israel and what he did by asking the widow  to make him some food with her very last morsels exhibited a lot of faith.  We can be certain that she did not believe in Elijah’s God, but we can surmise that she was hanging on to a thread of hope that Elijah’s God wouldn’t fail.   When you are faced with serious problems you will hang on to just about anything for hope.  This time she clung to the right thing. 

Elijah was a prophet whose job was to relay to the people within the borders of Israel and outside her borders the great and awesome power of the Lord God of Israel and to set them straight once again.  He prophesied a drought in Israel, and God showed compassion upon Elijah not only once but a second time and it is in that second act of God’s compassion that we see Elijah, through God, bring life back from death.  As Kate Huey, a UCC pastor says, “God rains mercy on a parched earth and dried-up lives.”  Indeed hope is restored.  

When we read stories like this, and there are so many others in the Bible and in everyday life, how can we ever doubt that God isn’t capable of restoring hope and life to us when we feel as if our lives have dried up mercilessly like the parched and cracked riverbed of a wadi?  Like the widow at Zeraphath we too can cling on to a thread of hope.

There ARE times when we doubt, I know.  Questions creep into our heads: When will this economic recession end?  When will my pain go away?  When will my depression cease? When, how long God, how long?  But we must never give up hope that God is not raining mercy upon us at this very moment of our lives.  When we look around there is abundant evidence that God is not far away but up close and very personal and active in our lives.  God presence is through us and through others in compassionate acts of kindness from a simple hello, to a phone call, or a visit or maybe even a miracle of extraordinary measures. 

This is a beautiful story of compassion and hope. It is in the miraculous resurrection that we evidence hope.  Hope for a better day, hope for new life, and hope in all things to come.