Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Unknown God

Scripture: Acts 17:22-31   (NRSV)

22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we too are his offspring.’

29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

We’re a pretty well educated bunch of folks here at First Christian Church.  I imagine most of you are familiar with the Greek Gods.  Or maybe you have watched some of the Disney movies, or 90s TV shows like Zena Warrior Princess and Hercules, and learned something about the Greek gods that way.   For those who don’t know much about them, it’s important to know that there were a lot of them!  There were major gods, like Zeus and Hera; minor gods like Pan and Mercury;  even demi-gods, like Hercules, who father was Zeus and mother was a human.  Each god had his or her particular areas of expertise and control.  Each had his or her own temples and priests and particular followers, although everyone paid at least some attention to all of them, because no one wanted to give any of them a reason to be angry.  They could be helpful to their favorites, but they were, quite frankly, not to be trusted.  They were easily insulted and affronted.  They got jealous if they thought some other god was getting more attention than they were.  They started wars out of jealousy, destroyed individuals and families, raped human women . . . They had great power, and abused it.  They seemed to embody all of humanity’s bad qualities, and very few of the good ones.  

Paul would have been very familiar with this panoply of gods,  having come from the city of Tarsus where Greek culture was prevalent.   In Athens, a city named for and dedicated to Athena, goddess of wisdom and useful arts, among all of the temples and altars to the familiar gods, he noticed one dedicated to “the unknown god.”  There isn’t much known about these altars, although a few have been found in ancient Greek cities.  But it is known that Greeks would often swear by “The Unknown God” - a wise choice, one would think, since picking one god to swear by could seriously irritate another one.  And irritating a god was never a good idea!   Paul said to the people of Athens, “That unknown god of  yours?  I know who that is!  Your unknown god isn’t unknown at all!  He is the one who created the world and everything in it!  Let me teach you about Him!” 

The God Paul was talking about was certainly unknown to me.  Most of you are aware that I was raised in a church where I learned about a punishing God, a jealous God, a God who was more concerned about watching to see what I did wrong than guiding me into the ways to do right.  In fact, that God I was raised with seemed a lot more like the Greek gods than the God I know today.  Most of you know that I left that church when I was 18 and stayed away from every kind of church for 25 years.  I spent most of that time doing drugs and getting drunk and dong other socially unacceptable stuff.  It wasn’t until I got clean and started going to 12 Step meetings that I started learning about a different kind of God, a loving and forgiving God, a God whose most earnest desire was for good things and good people to come into my life.  I was taught to consider carefully what attributes God really has.  Not what I had learned before, but all the good things.    We talked about the God of our understanding, but one of my friends used to talk about the God he would never be able to understand, because, you know, God.  Way too much for any human to understand.  Way too big for any box we want to confine God to.  Way too big to be confined to any one place, or any one theology, or any one denomination.  

After a few years of learning about God in this new way, I found a church.  A church a lot like this one.  A Disciples congregation where everyone is considered a minister.   Where all of us are required to think, and learn, and not just believe whatever is said from up front on Sunday mornings.  Where every single person who walks through the door is welcome, because this isn’t our house, it’s God’s house.  And we are all God’s children. And God loves all of God’s children.    

Paul told the people of Athens that God had created all people, all of the nations, and set them where God chose, and then allowed them to look around themselves, searching for God, groping to find him, and perhaps that way they would find him, although indeed He is not far from each one of us.  “For in him we live and move and have our being . . . for we too are his offspring.”  He told them that God cannot be confined to one place, or made of gold or silver or stone.  God’s image cannot be contained like that, in our art and our imaginations.  Because, God.  Way too big and great and powerful for even the most imaginative, the most creative, the most inward seeking, the most ingenious person who ever lived or ever would live to capture.   

This was hard to hear for people whose city made the bulk of its income from the sale of figures of Athena and donations to the temples.  Religion was big business.  People came from all over to experience the grandeur of Athena’s temple, the Parthenon.  People still do, for that matter, almost 2,000 years after Paul’s sermon there.  The Greeks had been worshipping these gods for a long time.  They had a pretty good idea how to keep them happy.  Most of the time, if they made a good enough donation to the temple, or did specific tasks that were sown to please one or another of the gods, things would go pretty much ok.  Most of the time, unless one of the gods woke up on the wrong side of the bed (or was caught in the wrong one, which happened to Zeus fairly often.)Then all bets were off while the gods sulked or stormed, punishing each other and humanity as well. 

The God Paul was telling them about, the God of our understanding, doesn’t do that.  Our God isn’t modeled after humanity, like the Greek gods were.  Rather, humanity is a very weak imitation of God.  If we want to please God, we will do our best to imitate Jesus, who was fully human, who understood pain and joy, who had known sickness and good health, who had experienced love and rejection.  If we want to please God, we will seek within ourselves for the best part of ourselves, the best qualities that God has given us, and use those qualities in our interactions with others.  If we want to please God, we will do our best to serve God’s people, the ones who cannot care for themselves as well as we can, those whose lives are more difficult, for whatever reason.  If we want to please God, we don’t have to cook God dinner, but we do have to feed those who are hungry.  We don’t have to bring cloth of gold to lay at the foot of the altar, but we do have to clothe those who are naked.  We do have to find homes for the homeless, bring healing love to the sick, and comfort the prisoner.  If we want to please God, we have to help people begin to understand God, just a little bit.  We have to teach those whose image of God is that punishing, judgmental, angry, and jealous God that I grew up with about Paul’s version of God, about the version of God that Jesus talked about, the one who cares for each and every one of God’s children.  Who sees the sparrow fall from the sky and knows how many hairs are on our head.   Who knows what gifts and talents you have, and places you where you can best use them.  Whose love pours out upon the world in a constant stream, like the precious oil that was poured out upon Jesus by the woman with the alabaster jar.  And those lessons are better taught by actions than by words.  

Sadly, my brothers and sisters, our God is known to us, but still Unknown to way too many.   We may not know everything there is to know about God - and we will never know everything there is to know about God - but we do know that the closer we follow Jesus, the better we will get to know God, the easier it will be for us to find God, to see him in the people and situations in our lives.  The Good News is that God is not far from any of us.  The Good News is that when we seek God in others, and in situations in our lives, we always find God.  The Good News is that when we look for the good in any person or any situation, we can nearly always find it.  Let each of us open our eyes and our ears and hearts, looking for God in all places and in all people, so that we might demonstrate that God who is still unknown to way too many people in our world today - the God we know, the merciful and compassionate God, who pours forgiveness and love upon all of His creatures.   

Sunday, May 14, 2017

At the end, a beginning

Scripture:   Acts 7:55-60

55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.


It’s Mother’s Day.  A day that strikes fear into the hearts of preachers everywhere, even more than Easter, if that’s possible. This is considered by some to be the 2nd most important Sunday of the church year - the day when many women in the congregation are proudly accompanied by children and grandchildren and even great grandchildren, secretly hoping that the preacher will say the exact right words to bring those kids back to this church again next Sunday.   And here I am, preaching on the stoning of Stephen.  Not exactly typical Mother’s Day fare.  You know, I really don’t try to be contrary.  It just sort of works out that way.  But bear with me, and it may all become clear.

First, let’s talk about Stephen.  Poor Stephen.  He really does get neglected.  Most of the time when this passage comes around, we use it as an opportunity to talk about Paul, because Paul’s journey to being arguably the most influential of all the early evangelists begins when “the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.”  No one really talks much about Stephen at all.  It’s like a bride being upstaged at her wedding.  But Stephen himself is an important person. His story needs to be more than a backdrop to Saul’s conversion.

We first hear about Stephen in the 6th chapter of Acts, when he is the first of a group of seven men selected to oversee the distribution of food to the widows, so that both Greek and Hebrew women are served equally.  We are told that Stephen is full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and grace and power, a persuasive speaker, someone who always bested opponents in debate because of his great wisdom.  False witnesses, bribed by men who were tired of being beaten by Stephen’s rhetoric and Spirit, told the Temple council that he had blasphemed against the law of Moses and spoken against the Temple.  When they called him to defend himself, they looked and “saw that his face was like the face of an angel”.  When he began to speak, he reminded them of the covenant God made with Abraham. He told them how the people had rebelled against Moses and rejected the Word of God.  He told them that God decreed a tent for God’s dwelling place, and that the Temple was the work of man, not God. He told them they had rejected God’s covenant in their hearts and minds, murdering those who prophesied the Righteous One, and killing the Christ.  He said, “You are the ones who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it!”  And then, “54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.[j] 55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.”  And when he was about to die, Stephen, like Jesus before him, asked God to forgive them.

Stephen’s martyrdom is, indeed, the beginning of Saul’s journey to Christ, but it is so much more than that.   It is the end of the Temple leadership’s fear of the crowds.  Up to this point, in the book of Acts, the leaders of the Temple have been afraid to take strong measures against these Jesus followers because they feared the crowds would turn on them.  Peter and others preached with such fire and strength that even when chastising the Temple leadership in the strongest of terms, they felt powerless to stop them.   That ends here.  From this point forward, the gloves come off.  Imprisonment and execution for blasphemy are about to become reality for Jesus followers.   Some will continue to preach openly, courting martyrdom.  And like Stephen, they will face their martyrdom with courage and faith.  His example will guide them.  But many believers will go underground or flee the city for their safety.  

So it is a beginning.  Fleeing from Jerusalem, members of the early church will spread out to other cities, joining those believers who had gone back to their homes after their conversion on Pentecost, starting house churches, speaking to other Jews about Jesus the Messiah.  The Word of God through Christ will begin to spread throughout the communities of Jews in all of the cities of Asia, even as far away as Rome.  (Mind you, it will remain within the Jewish community until Paul shows up.  It is Paul who will carry the Word to the non-Jews, the Gentiles.)   Stephen’s courageous death sets an example for all of them, even the ones who leave Jerusalem, because from this time forward, faithful followers of Christ will proudly admit to their beliefs even if it means their imprisonment or death.  They will follow his lead and his example, forgiving those who persecute them.  The company of believers is about to become the Church Universal, for real.  

I had no idea how much my life was going to change after the baby was born.”   Yesterday at the Christian Women’s Fellowship meeting we talked about mothers.  Dawn told us that she had once heard a woman say that, and of course we all laughed.  Life is never the same after the baby is born.  Your life is no longer your own, after the baby is born.  Every moment belongs to that child, even when she isn’t living at home anymore.  Even when he is grown up wth children of his own.   We told stories of things we had learned from our mothers, and how those things had influenced our lives.  Mothers taught us to read, and we are lovers of reading.  Mothers taught us to relax about the small stuff, and not worry if there are Legos all over the living room floor when company arrives.  Mothers taught us to embrace our role, whatever it may be, and we are empowered to do things we didn’t think we could.  Even those of us with difficult relationships with our mothers, still learned from them, still gained insight and knowledge from them.  The things we learned early on from our mothers are things that will guide our lives.  We may find ourselves being more like our mothers than we ever expected.  I mean, how many times have you heard someone say, “OMG!  I have become my mother!” or maybe even said it yourself?  Usually it is in some child-rearing situation.  Maybe you say to your teenaged child something you swore, as a teenager, you would never say to your child.  Of course, every mother - even step and foster mothers -  quickly develops an extra set of eyes in the back of her head, as well as an almost spooky sense of when that child is doing exactly what she shouldn’t be doing, and we realize that we are doing what our own mothers did with and for us.  We realize that what we have learned from our mothers is guiding us along our own life’s journey.  

Just as that young mother had no idea how much her life would change after the baby was born, the followers of Jesus had no idea that everything would change after that day.   Stephen’s stoning didn’t end the movement, or even slow it down.  Rather, it accelerated and empowered it.  Stephen’s martyrdom proved that God’s Word cannot be stopped.  Even death cannot stop it.  For just as the pain of child birth ushers a new child into our lives, so Stephen’s martyrdom mothered the new church into the next stage in its growth.  His death, his end, is a new beginning. Just as the example of our own mothers guides our lives in the way we grow, so Stephen’s example will guide the infant church into its next phase.  Stephen’s death is the spark that spread the Light out into the world, sending believers out from Jerusalem into Samaria and Greece and everywhere Jews could be found.  The apostles had been told to begin their ministry in Jerusalem, but now they will spread out.  Believers and preachers of the Word of God will soon cover the entire earth, proudly proclaiming the Good News of God’s love and forgiveness.   

My sisters and brothers, the Good News is that nothing can stop the Word of God.  Even Stephen’s death couldn’t slow down the movement of the Holy Spirit  that had its beginning in Christ’s death and resurrection.  That spark that ignited the fire of the Holy Spirit, throughout the world, that spark that lit up the whole world through the power of  God’s love, is now passed to us.  When we go from this place, let us take that spark and pass it on, to everyone we encounter.  

Sunday, May 7, 2017

In the midst of life....

Scripture: Psalm 23   (NRSV)
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2  He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3  he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
    for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
    I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff—
    they comfort me.
5  You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
6  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
    my whole life long.
 It is still Easter!  The sanctuary is still draped in white for celebration.  We are still singing Easter Hymns and crying out “He is Risen! . . .  Alleluia!”  And we just heard the 23rd Psalm.  We usually only hear the 23rd Psalm at funerals and memorial services.  In fact, we hear it at those times so often that I have heard people say, “Oh please, do not use the 23rd Psalm.  Everyone uses that.”  So how is that we hear this reading today, during Easter?  He is Risen!  Alleluia?  
It’s raining.  Fewer people come out to celebrate when it’s raining.  And stuff happens, even during Easter. 

The week after Easter I was still riding an emotional high from Easter - from the service, from the music, from the celebration of the resurrection, from lots of good news I received during that week, suddenly, on Friday, I crashed.  I was fine one minute and the next I was exhausted and depressed.   Just as I was coming back from that, and getting over having been with way too many people for a couple of days at the Annual Gathering, my beautiful one-eyed, crippled rescue kitty Samwise began to die.  She mostly just sleeps now.  Every time I look at her, I am surprised to see she is still breathing.  Maybe she’ll be gone when I get home today.  How do I celebrate, now?

Students are frantically writing last papers, preparing for final exams, trying to get through the last few days or weeks of school.  For some, it is the last time to do these things - Selma High’s prom and graduation are just around the corner.  Fresno State’s commencement is on May 20th.   There is something both exhilarating and depressing about doing things for the last time, to seeing something come to an end.  Never mind that you have been working toward this end for years.  Celebrations are bitter sweet as you face an unknown future.  

In this congregation we have had other things happen to make shouts of Alleluia ring a little hollow.  Three young men from Kingsburg were killed in a tragic accident.  The lone survivor is a part of our family.  Another young man connected with our church family has been in rehab after telling a friend he wanted to kill himself.  

Around the nation, thousands, possibly millions, of people are worrying about what will happen to their health insurance if the bill that just passed Congress also gets through the Senate.  I’ve seen long, detailed lists of pre-existing conditions that we will “lose”, but as I don’t know what “lose” means in this context, I don’t really know what that means.  What I do know is that a lot of people are frightened, that they won’t be covered any more, that their insurance premiums will skyrocket because of a pre-existing condition.  It is hard to celebrate even the risen Christ when you are frightened and upset.  Or, as Psalm 137 says, “How can we sing songs of the Lord in a foreign land?”   We may not be exiled from our homes the way the writer of that psalm was, but we understand the foreign-ness of sorrow, worry, and depression in the midst of a time of great celebration.

It is for times like these that Psalm 23 was written.  
The Lord is my shepherd.  I shall not want. I have everything I need.
The Lord keeps me safe, and gives me a place to rest when it all gets to be too much.  He restores my soul.  
No matter how worried I am, God holds me close, comforts me, and helps my heart be easy.
God’s rod, an instrument of punishment, and staff, the symbol of his shepherding care, comfort us, for in them we recognize God’s justice and mercy for all the world.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.
No matter what is going on in my life - stress, illness, injury, danger, loss of a loved one - no matter what, I will be ok, because God is with me.

I love this picture, of a cat walking serenely past a row of dogs.  Cats are consummate actors, of course.  Who hasn’t seen a cat fall off of something and then get that, “I meant to do that” look on her face?   This cat may have been used as a K-9 training test before, or not, but she is certainly projecting catitude as she strolls along.  It is as if she knows that some higher power is protecting her.  Might some of them break and go for her?  It could happen.  But she looks  confident that she will be ok, no matter what.  

Julian of Norwich was a 14th century Christian mystic.  A book she wrote in 1395, “Revelations of Divine Love,”  describing a series of visions she had of Jesus, is the first English language book known to be written by a woman.  If you have not heard her name before, you have surely heard some of her words, because from this book comes the phrase, “all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”  In it she also wrote, ”If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me.  But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love."   She was convinced that all things will ultimately be put right by Christ, that, in fact, everything will ultimately be ok, because of God’s love made manifest in Jesus. 

It is surely true that none of us are promised a safe and easy life.  No one is promised uninterrupted happiness.  Into every life will come sorrow and suffering of some kind.  We are, however, always promised love.  No matter what happens, God loves us.  No matter what happens, God is there for us.  No matter what we have done, we will be forgiven.  Everything around us may fall apart, but we are not alone, not ever, for God is with us always.  

God, speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, and seeing the suffering of the people, asked “Is there no no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?”  (Jeremiah 8:22)  We might even ask that question ourselves, when we are suffering in the midst of celebration, when in the midst of life we seem surrounded by death and difficulty. It is at those times that we turn to the comfort of Psalm 23.   We turn to the knowledge that no matter what, God is with us.  “Fear not,” God said, “for I am with you.”

The Good News is still that Christ is Risen!  Christ is the balm in Gilead, the one sent by God to heal us, to reconcile each individual, each nation, all of creation to one another and to God, to restore the world to wholeness in God’s name.  

The Good News is still that Christ is Risen!  That no matter what happens, we will be OK, for he is our Living God.  

The Good News is still that Christ is Risen!  For in his name, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.  

My brothers and sisters, Christ is Risen! 
He is risen, indeed.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

When in doubt . .

Scripture Reading John 20:19-31 (CEB)  

19 It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” 22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”
24 Thomas, the one called Didymus, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”
But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”
26 After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”
28 Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”
30 Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. 31 But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.
Yesterday Leah sent me a message asking if I had an idea for the sermon slide this week.  My answer was kind of. Not really.  Maybe a Tree of Life?  You see, I wasn’t sure which way this message was going to go.  It’s Earth Stewardship Sunday, and I typically preach on creation care this week.  But because Easter was late this year it’s also the week when we preach on the story of the disciple we call Doubting Thomas.  What to do?  Preach on Faith?  Creation Care?   

And then a hymn got stuck in my head.  Actually, it’s been stuck there for over a week, but I’m kind of used to that.  I mean, who doesn’t get music stuck in their head from time to time.  In my case, it’s often one of the old hymns that I first learned as student chaplain in a retirement community, where it was quickly made clear to me that 1932 was a very good year for hymns.  You see, I didn’t learn hymns growing up.  The church I attended didn’t sing except on very special occasions, and then the songs were in Latin.  So hymns weren’t part of my religious upbringing.  I learned some gospel music at Bluegrass Festivals, and hymns like Amazing Grace, but when I came to the Disciples I was woefully ignorant of hymns.  I think one of the reasons I kept coming back after my first visit to a Disciples church, initially, was the music.  Congregational singing is glorious!   So anyway, there I was with a decision to make and a hymn in my head.  This particular hymn was written in 1933, but that’s close enough.  

I serve a risen Savior, he’s in the world today
I know that he is living, whatever others say.
I see his hand of mercy, I hear his voice of cheer,
and just the time I need him, he’s always near
He Lives! He Lives!  Christ Jesus lives today!

So, Thomas it is.  Faith. . . and Doubt.  

Poor Thomas.  He really has a poor reputation these days.  I would like to point out a couple of things about Thomas that we usually overlook.  This so-called “Doubting Thomas” is the sameThomas who said “Let’s go die with him.” in the Lazarus story.  Remember?   The disciples tried to keep Jesus from going to Bethany because they were quite certain he would be stoned to death for blasphemy, and very possibly they would be accused alongside of him.  But the very faithful Thomas says, “Let’s go die with him.”   This same Doubting Thomas was, in fact, the very first to call Jesus “My Lord and My God.”    The others had seen him, and acknowledged him as Lord, but in these Easter events Thomas is the first to call him God.   And I have to wonder what it was that Thomas was having trouble believing?  I’m sure he believed the others believed they had seen Jesus.  Perhaps he thought that what they had experienced was a ghost, or a mass hallucination.  After all, it is sort of hard to wrap our minds around someone simply getting up from the grave and walking around.  And not just walking around, but apparently walking through walls or simply appearing in the middle of a room.  These are not things that are in anyone’s daily experience.  NT Wright points out, in the Acts for Everyone Bible Study, that the post-resurrection Jesus somehow inhabits both Earth and Heaven at the same time - his body is physical when it needs to be, and non-corporeal when that is what is needed.  So he can walk through walls, and suddenly appear in their midst, and walk alongside certain disciples carrying on a conversation for hours on the road to Emmaus without being recognized.  And he can be touched.  The women can grab hold of his feet to worship him. Thomas can put his hands in Jesus’ wounds.      This is so far beyond anyone’s comprehension that I kind of don’t blame Thomas for questioning what they had seen.  

Jesus said to Thomas, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”   We like to pat ourselves on the back for believing in Jesus even though we have never seen him.  I’m not sure we deserve that self-congratulatory attitude.  Many of us believe because we have been brought up from birth believing. I can’t imagine not believing that Jesus is my Savior. Even during all the years I spent away from Church, angry at God, (although maybe mostly at Church) convinced I was going to hell no matter what I did, I still believed. I believed Jesus loved me.  I believed he had come to save the world from sin and misery.  I believed he was and is, as the old hymn says, the Balm in Gilead.   

Maybe I have a slight advantage over Thomas.   You may find this hard to believe, but I was a bit of a rebel.  When I was in 7th or 8th grade I challenged the teacher at the Wednesday night religion class by asking, “How do we know there is a God?”  Instead of being given an answer I could mull over, I was chastised for disrespect, and told I was simply to believe and not question anything.  I told my father, who, after grumbling about the teacher, took me outside.  He walked me up to a large tree and said, “This is proof that God exists.  How could the miracle that is a tree happen if God’s hand wasn’t involved?”  We talked about trees and other amazing parts of creation for a while, and I understood that he was right.  From that time forward I have had a sort of personal mantra.  When in doubt, look at a tree.  

How many of us have absolutely believed in Santa?  No doubts!  Santa was real!  And the proof was presents!  As time passed that belief may have undergone some changes.  We may not believe in the same way we used to.  But there are still presents.  

Seems to me that's the same sort of proof we have that Jesus is real.  The question isn't whether he was a real person, because the fact that he existed has been recorded in histories other than the Bible, but whether he is our Savior.   The question is whether he is the Messiah, the one anointed by God, to bring the Word to the people who most needed it, to bring light into our darkness.   And the proof, as I see it, is in the presents - the gifts that we have received as a result of our belief in him.

In a conversation the other day I said something  about ways in which Dr. King might have changed his perspective, as evidenced by some of his later writings and interview, had he not died.  It was quickly brought to my attention that he had not simply died, but had been murdered.  And yes he was, but I argued that the manner of his death didn't have a bearing on the body of work he produced prior to that.  It absolutely does have a bearing on how we remember and honor him, and certainly on the ways others have written about him, but not on the body of his written work.  He knew, from the very beginning, that he might very well die because of his work, but he didn’t let that stop him.  The same can be said of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Oscar Romero.  All three were great teachers, writers,  theologians and preachers, men of the cloth who stood boldly against the powers that be in defense of the oppressed.  We would remember them for the body of their work even if they had not been murdered by those whose authority they threatened.  But their martyrdom has assured their place in history as men of great integrity and strong Christian faith. 

Jesus was also a great teacher, and perhaps his sermons and parables and lessons would be remembered and taught today, as the teachings of the great Greek philosophers and great Jewish thinkers of his and earlier times are still taught.  There are certainly many who see him as a teacher, even a great prophet, but nothing more.  There are those who deny his miracles and healings.   There are those who claim he couldn’t have cast out demons simply because they do not believe in demons.  There are even those who doubt his resurrection.  There are numerous theories as to why the stories of his resurrection were told, including the much derided “Dave Theory” (named for the movie Dave, in which a look alike stood in for the President of the United States).  And I must sadly point out that many of those who believe these things are Christians, even ministers and theologians.  Me, I believe in miracles.  I believe that Jesus rose on the third day, and spent the next 40 days teaching his disciples the things they would need to know to continue to carry the Good News into the world.  I believe that they went on to perform healings and other wonders, and that these things are still possible today.  

But the real proof that Jesus is the Savior, the Messiah, the one anointed by God to heal the world, is to be found in the gifts we receive.   The gifts of knowledge of God’s care for us, and God’s forgiveness, the gifts of peaceful heart and serene mind.   But the greatest gift we receive, the one that proves without doubt that Jesus is the one who was sent by God to heal the world, is to be found in the words that he repeated in so many different ways.   “Love one another.”  Love God and love each other.  Go out and feed the hungry, care for the poor, clothe the naked, comfort the prisoner, heal the sick.  Go out and invite everyone on the streets in to join in the banquet.  Forgive your brother or sister as many times as it takes.  Love everyone!  Welcome everyone!   Reject no one, for Christ himself welcomed all to his table.  

When we go from this place today, let us open our eyes to see our risen Savior, our living Christ, in the face of everyone we encounter.

He lives!   He is Risen!  

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Do Not Be Afraid

Matthew 28:1-10 Common English Bible (CEB) 

28 After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the tomb. Look, there was a great earthquake, for an angel from the Lord came down from heaven. Coming to the stone, he rolled it away and sat on it. Now his face was like lightning and his clothes as white as snow. The guards were so terrified of him that they shook with fear and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Don’t be afraid. I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He isn’t here, because he’s been raised from the dead, just as he said. Come, see the place where they laid him. Now hurry, go and tell his disciples, ‘He’s been raised from the dead. He’s going on ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there.’ I’ve given the message to you.”
With great fear and excitement, they hurried away from the tomb and ran to tell his disciples. But Jesus met them and greeted them. They came and grabbed his feet and worshipped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Go and tell my brothers that I am going into Galilee. They will see me there.”
With great fear and excitement, the women hurried away from the tomb and ran to tell the disciples.   Every preacher knows what that fear and excitement feels like.  They are the feelings with which we approach the crafting of the Easter message.  There’s a lot hanging on the Easter message.  Everybody knows that churches will be filled to the rafters on Easter and this sermon might be our only chance to guilt some of those visiting family members and such into regular attendance!   OK, maybe guilt isn’t exactly the right word.   And certainly, in these days of YouTube and podcasts and live streaming, the message gets out to whomever wants to hear it even when it isn’t Easter.  But the fact remains that congregations have filled the pews on Easter hoping to hear something amazing, and preachers have approached the pulpit with fear and trembling, hoping to measure up to their expectations.  

Do not be afraid!”  The angel said it to the women - although not to the guards on the tomb, placed there by the high priest so that the disciples couldn’t come and steal the body of their rabbi to make the prophecy come true.  They even tried to get Pilate involved.  Matthew tells us that “The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63 and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard[of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” 66 So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone”  (Matthew 27:62-66)   

What they didn’t understand was that Jesus wasn’t like all the other self-proclaimed messiahs that had been plaguing them for decades.  Jesus was the real thing.  His disciples didn’t have to steal his body.  God had already claimed it.  By the time their guard got there to assure that the tomb was sealed against intruders it was already too late.  They did their duty, those guards, standing there to assure no humans came to steal the body.  But when the angel came - clearly not a human with his face as brights as lightning and his snow white clothing - they were so terrified and fainted dead away!  The women, however, did not.  To them the angel said what messengers of the Lord have always said, “Do not be afraid.”   And then, when they were on their way to do as the angel directed, they met Jesus.  And they fell to their knees and took hold of his feet and worshipping him.  

I wonder what he looked like.  No really.  The angel was bright and awesome and terrifying!   On the mountaintop, when he met with Elijah and Moses, Jesus was also bright and awesome and terrifying.  But here, as the women were running from the tomb back to where ever the disciples were hiding, Jesus appeared to them as himself?  An ordinary, human appearing Jesus?  Clearly they recognized him right away.  They didn't have any problems touching him, his feet at least.  But he, too, said “Do not be afraid.” 

Clearly they were not afraid of him.  So what was he telling them not to be afraid about, I wonder?   All we can do, really, is guess.  The devotional we have been reading this Lenten season suggests that the women may have been fearful about what would happen to them in the future, that they may not be able to go back home again after having left families and homes to follow him.  Perhaps, although Mary of Magdalene, for one, probably hadn’t been home in a long time before that.  She was the woman from whom he cast out a demon, after all.  She may very well have been wandering, homeless, for a long time, talking to herself, like some of the homeless women we have all seen.  The “other Mary” mentioned in this Gospel was most likely Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, so she wasn’t worried about losing her home over devotion to Jesus.  But certainly they, like all the other disciples, would have feared the Temple authorities, those who had Jesus put to death.  

So Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid.”  Then he repeated what the angel had told them, that he would see them in Galilee.  He was telling them, in essence, that they should go home. Leave the place where he died, and where they might still be in danger from the Temple authorities, and go home.  Go back to where it all began.

Jesus told them to go back to the beginning.  Easter is always a new beginning.  Two nights ago, we came to this place to commemorate the death of Jesus. We came here to listen to scripture readings and music that told the story of his passion and death.  We took nails, nails many of us had been carrying with us since Ash Wednesday, that we had been praying over, that we had been figuratively filling with all the sins and character defects we wished to give up, and we hammered those nails into the cross, leaving them behind there, so that come this morning, this Easter morning, we could begin afresh.  We left those nails to represent all of our faults, so that we could go back to the beginning, back to that day when we were baptized and made a vow to turn our wills and our lives over to God, becoming new in Christ.  

Do not be afraid.  It’s not easy to give up all those faults.  We’re actually quite fond of some of them.  How many of us take some pride in being stubborn, for example?  I mean, it’s fairly easy to look at the Seven Deadly Sins and say, “Oh, yeah, those are bad.  I don’t want any of those!”  I mean, no one wants to be slothful, or gluttonous, or envious, or filled with lust, or greedy, or wrathful, or prideful, after all.   Well, gluttony is bad, but then there’s chocolate.  And it’s Easter.  Who can avoid eating a bit too much chocolate on Easter?  Who would want to?  And a bit of lust is a good thing between married folks, right?  And we have a right to be proud of some things, don’t we?  And am I being slothful if I do pretty much nothing on my day off instead of, say, cleaning the house? Or is that self care?  And there are definitely cases of righteously justifiable anger. Surely that’s not a sin.  Perhaps it’s only really a sin if it goes beyond a certain degree.  Maybe we’re operating with the wrong definition of some of those things.  

See - not easy.  And that’s just the Seven Deadlies!  There are all of those other faults and sinful behaviors and trespasses against other people.   We may easily find ourselves thinking, “Oh heavens, I will never be good enough!  I will never be able to really give up all those things.”

My sisters and brothers, do not be afraid.  For the Good News is this - you are forgiven.  You are forgiven as many times as it takes.  It’s not a once and done proposition with God.  Jesus died at the hands of sinful humans, whose sins of fear and pride left them no alternative when their power was threatened, yet even at the moment of his death, Jesus asked God to forgiven them, even those who turned him over to the Romans, even those individuals who beat and tortured and killed him, even those in the crowd who were complicit in his death.  Even Judas, who did only as he had to in order for the prophecy to be fulfilled.  If all of those are forgiven, then surely we are as well.  Jesus told us over and over again, in his parables and his sermons, that ours is a loving and forgiving God.  Over and over again, Jesus spoke words of forgiveness to those most in need of an understanding of God’s grace.   Sometimes he would speak those words and add to them an admonition to go and sin no more.  But mostly he simply spoke words of assurance, that through the grace and love of God, we are forgiven.  

Easter is a day of new beginnings.  It is day upon which we can take comfort in knowing that God loves us, just as we are.   A day upon which the light of God’s love is most evident.  A day upon which we can walk forward into the light, celebrating our new life in Christ. 

And the even better Good News?  It is that we celebrate Easter every single Sunday.  Every single Lord’s Day throughout the year is a reminder and a remembering of the resurrection, of the opportunity for new life that God gives to each of us each and every day, of God’s gracious love and forgiveness.   My brothers and sisters, let us go forth into the world, unafraid, sharing God’s grace and love with everyone we meet.  Let us go out shining with the light of God’s love, celebrating the resurrection of the Christ, and our new lives.   

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Untie Him!

Scripture Reading John 11:1-45 (CEB)

11 A certain man, Lazarus, was ill. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This was the Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped his feet with her hair. Her brother Lazarus was ill.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, saying, “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.”
When he heard this, Jesus said, “This illness isn’t fatal. It’s for the glory of God so that God’s Son can be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus. When he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed where he was. After two days, he said to his disciples, “Let’s return to Judea again.”
The disciples replied, “Rabbi, the Jewish opposition wants to stone you, but you want to go back?”
Jesus answered, “Aren’t there twelve hours in the day? Whoever walks in the day doesn’t stumble because they see the light of the world. 10 But whoever walks in the night does stumble because the light isn’t in them.”
11 He continued, “Our friend Lazarus is sleeping, but I am going in order to wake him up.”
12 The disciples said, “Lord, if he’s sleeping, he will get well.” 13 They thought Jesus meant that Lazarus was in a deep sleep, but Jesus had spoken about Lazarus’ death.
14 Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died. 15 For your sakes, I’m glad I wasn’t there so that you can believe. Let’s go to him.”
16 Then Thomas (the one called Didymus) said to the other disciples, “Let us go too so that we may die with Jesus.”
17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Bethany was a little less than two miles from Jerusalem. 19 Many Jews had come to comfort Martha and Mary after their brother’s death. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him, while Mary remained in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. 22 Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.”
23 Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha replied, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. 26 Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27 She replied, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world.”
28 After she said this, she went and spoke privately to her sister Mary, “The teacher is here and he’s calling for you.” 29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to Jesus. 30 He hadn’t entered the village but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who were comforting Mary in the house saw her get up quickly and leave, they followed her. They assumed she was going to mourn at the tomb.
32 When Mary arrived where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”
33 When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled. 34 He asked, “Where have you laid him?”
They replied, “Lord, come and see.”
35 Jesus began to cry. 36 The Jews said, “See how much he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “He healed the eyes of the man born blind. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?”
38 Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance. 39 Jesus said, “Remove the stone.”
Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.”
40 Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?”41 So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. 42 I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” 43 Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”
45 Therefore, many of the Jews who came with Mary and saw what Jesus did believed in him. 


I was especially blessed yesterday.  I was a participant in the Relay for Life.  Jane Ono had invited me to give the invocation, which was a great honor all on its own.  But because I am a cancer survivor I was celebrated.  I got a T-shirt and breakfast and a bag full of goodies and even a medal!  The first lap was the Survivor’s Lap, and as we walked around the Fowler High School track the other participants and the Bandits Cheerleaders circled the track and cheered for us.  Some of us were pretty healthy and walked the lap easily.  Some were using canes or walkers, or were supported by caregivers, and it was a little harder for them.  Among the survivors was a woman who had come all the way from LA to join us, who walked very slowly, and who was determined that she was going to complete the circuit.  When she crossed the finish line the applause and cheers were louder than ever, and tears were flowing freely.  It was awesome!  It felt like watching a miracle happen right in front of us.  

As I walked that lap I realized that 18 years ago this week I had the first of many surgeries for my cancer.  I knew that because the Sunday after my surgery the elders from First Christian Church in Orange, California came to pray with me, and the scripture they read was the story of Lazarus.   It meant a lot to me that day, as I was feeling as if I had gotten my life back.  

This particular passage always means a lot to me.  Every time it comes around in the lectionary it impacts my life in a different way.  My freshman year at Chapman I attended worship on this particular Sunday at All People’s Christian Church in LA and Pastor TJ Bottoms preached a sermon titled, “Move the stone”.    He talked about not letting obstacles stop you from doing what God has called you to do.  I kind of needed to hear that as a 44 year old college freshman, and a woman called to enter the ordained ministry.  Both of these things were going to be difficult, but his message that day kept me going through the hardest times.   I even kept a little note on my refrigerator for years that said, “Move the stone,” just in case I forgot.

This is always a pretty hard passage to deal with.  First of all, it’s long.  It’s very long.  There is so much to unpack that a 15-20 minute sermon simply cannot do justice to the totality of this passage.  Second, it has Jesus exhibiting emotions we aren’t used to seeing in him.  In the beginning he seems indifferent to his friend’s illness.  Jesus, who had gone immediately to heal a little girl and a centurion’s servant and many others, stays where he is when he hears his friend is sick.  What was that about?  We think he did that so he could bring Lazarus back later, but it just seems strange that Jesus would let his friends, Mary and Martha, suffer so when their brother died.  He becomes deeply disturbed, some translations even say angry, when he sees Mary weeping and when he approaches the tomb.  He cries, something most of us do when we are deeply moved or grieved.   We tend to think of Jesus as always serene and calm . . . well, except maybe during that one visit to the Temple.  He was pretty angry then . . .  But most of the time, he seemed, you know, Christ- like.  In this passage, however, he goes through all kinds of changes. He exhibits all kinds of emotions. And lastly, after he goes through all of these emotions and then he makes it very clear to all present that he is not raising Lazarus through his own power, but that God is doing it in response to Jesus’ prayer.  By the way, if anyone still doubts that Jesus was fully human, this passage really should convince you of that fact.  

Jesus’ disciples thought he was going to his death, but decided to follow him back toward Jerusalem anyway.  It is worth noting that the one who said, “Let’s go die with him,” was the very same Thomas whom we call “Doubting Thomas” because he questioned whether Jesus had appeared to the others after the resurrection.  (There may be a quiz on this the week after Easter.)   

This time the title in today’s Lenten devotional, which I am sure you all read diligently this morning, took my mind in a whole nother direction.  Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.” 

One of my preacher friends this week wondered how on earth Lazarus managed to walk out of the tomb with his entire body tightly bound as they did in those days.  Someone said “The same way Morticia Adams walks in her tight skirts”.  Someone else said that he lost weight during the 4 days in the tomb so they fell off.  Another suggested he hopped like a bunny.  One even said something silly like, “With God all things are possible” which in this case is not a good answer.   Because Jesus does find it necessary to say “Untie him.”  So the bindings were still there.  They hadn’t fallen off due to weight loss.  God didn’t mysteriously remove them.  He probably did walk the way Morticia Adams does.  Or the way prisoners walk when they are shackled.   One of the translations I looked at this week even said, “He shuffled out of the tomb.”   

Untie him and let him go.  I like the way Lynette Johnson spoke of this phrase in our devotional.  She said, “Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb, but he instructs the others present to unbind, to set Lazarus free.  Jesus renews his life, but it is up to others — his sisters, his friends and neighbors, the leaders of his synagogue — to set him free.”  (Society of St. Andrew Daily Lenten Devotional 2017, pg. 28)  

I can’t help but think of all the people who have come forward lately to join the church.  Many of them (but not all) are quite young - high school and young adults. Some have been coming around for years, and some are pretty new to the whole idea of church.  Some of them have come here because in this place they can freely be themselves.  Some of the younger ones have come here because in this place they aren’t told, “You are the future.”  They are told, “You are the Church - now, today.”  Some, maybe even most, come from a different tradition, but find that this congregation and this denomination are the best fit for them.  All of them have said they are willing to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.  All of them have said they are willing to serve this congregation they best way they can, with the gifts and talents that God has given them.  All of them have heard that still, small, voice telling them, “It’s time to go forward and become an official part of this family,” (even though I suspect sometimes that voice is Jordan’s.)  It is so exciting to me that in this place where I have been called to serve, God is reaching out to such diverse and talented people. 

Jesus has renewed all of these folks, and put them into our hands.  It is our job to untie them and set them free to be the people God intends for them to be.  It is our job to make sure there is a safe place here for them and for all others who come.  Coming to this place, especially for those who are kind of new to the idea of being part of a church family, is pretty exciting.  Now.  But what about later?  Some can’t be here every week, or even most weeks, because of work or family obligations.  How do we continue to nurture them and set them free, if they can’t be here on Sunday?  

Someone said to me recently, “I know I’m ok right now.  It’s the long term I’m worried about.”  When a person has made a significant change in their life, and the excitement of the new thing has worn off, that is when we are most needed.  For Lazarus, everyone would be all over him on this day and for the next week or so, maybe.  But there would come a time when it’s just Tuesday.  The wonderment of his return to life has died down and he has to figure out how to just get from day to day in this new reality. He was dead!  And then he wasn’t!  And that has to be weird to live with.   After I healed from my surgery and my friends stopped coming by to check on me and help with daily chores, I had to find a way to deal with my new reality, one in which the cancer might come back any time or not.  I could ignore it or I could worry about it or … I didn’t quite know what to do, how to live one day after another, in this new reality.  I knew my life would never be the same again.  I had faith in God, of course, and I knew that no matter what, I would be ok.  But what I needed was to have people around who were willing and able to be supportive, even in the ordinariness of daily life, because I really didn’t know how to do ordinary any more, any more than Lazarus knew how to do ordinary anymore.  

Similarly, many among this church family and in my own circle of friends have lost loved ones recently.  Almost before we know it, the services are over, the flood of loving family and friends is gone, and suddenly life is back to “normal,” except that nothing will really be normal again, in the way we’ve always defined normal before.  Ordinariness is taking on a new appearance.  New routines are being developed.   

The work of the church, our work, is best done in the ordinariness of every day.  After the resurrection, after the excitement of new membership, after the surgeries and treatments, after the loss of our loved ones, after whatever it is that marks a new beginning to a life,  that is when the work of the church begins.  The work of the church begins in earnest once the excitement has ended, in the day to day setting free of those who now face a new reality.  To paraphrase Lynette Johnson, we must be the ones who unbind them.  We must be the ones who nurture and encourage them as they go forward into their new reality.  We must e the ones to whom they can turn in their new ordinariness.  When you go out, remember those for whom life has become different - reach out to them, let them know that they are not alone.  Just as our Lord has set us free, let us also be the source of freedom for those who need us in their lives. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Myth Busting

Scripture Reading:    1 Samuel 16:1-13 (NRSV)  

16 The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” 2 Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ 3 Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” 4 Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” 5 He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

6 When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” 7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 8 Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 9 Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10 Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 11 Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” 12 He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

This has to be one of the most difficult days of Samuel’s very long life.  It is clear that Saul, the king, has been disobedient.  God has told him to go find the next king, one of the son’s of Jesse from Bethlehem.  And Samuel is afraid, because if Saul hears about it, he’ll have Samuel killed.  He might even do the deed himself!  He is not exactly emotionally stable, you know.

You might wonder how on earth an emotionally unstable man like Saul happened to be chosen king of Israel.  After all, they selected him from among all the men of Israel by using lots, which they believed was the best way to make sure that the choice they made was God’s will.    And it was God’s will that they choose Saul, but in this case, God’s will wasn’t exactly running in line with what the people of Israel thought.  You see, they had come to Samuel saying, “Hey, you’re old.  Your sons are useless.  We need someone to lead us.  Give us a king.”  This upset both Samuel and God, both of whom saw this as Israel rejecting their leadership.  God said, “OK.  First tell them what it will mean to have a king, then let them choose one for themselves.”   So Samuel told them how kings behaved - about taxes and taking their daughters as servants and their sons as soldiers, and about all the excesses kings were prone to and the abuses that kings had been known to perpetrate on their people.  And they said, “We don’t care.  We want to have a king like everybody else.”  God said, “Go for it.”  Then God, who knows everything, including who is best suited to being king, selected Saul to be anointed as king, the people cast lots to determine which man of Israel was to be their king, and surprise!  Saul was the winner.   

Sidebar:  Casting lots wasn’t exactly the same as throwing dice or choosing the short straw.  There was quite a bit of religious ceremony involved, as they firmly believed that God’s hand was the one making the lots fall in order for God’s will to be made known.  Indeed, God’s will was made known in this case, although God’s  choice wasn’t what the people had hoped for when they asked for a king.

Saul thought that being the king meant he was in charge.  And he was certainly very good at being in charge of the armies, defeating everyone he came up against.  But he was disobedient to God. He made rash vows which bound even people who had no chance to know about the vow (which nearly got his son Jonathan killed), he wouldn’t listen to Samuel, he even set up an altar and performed sacrifices to the Lord in Samuel’s absence, as if he was a priest or a prophet.  And God finally said, ‘“Enough is enough.  I have chosen another king to take over Israel from Saul.”  So we arrive at today’s story.  And the myth of David, the shepherd boy.  

Samuel has looked over all of Jesse’s sons, or so he thought.  There was one more, he was told, the youngest, but he was out in the fields keeping the sheep.  And from that one line comes the image of David as the innocent young shepherd, much beloved of the people who illustrate children’s books.  (May we see the next slide, please?)   We love the image of this young boy going up against the wisdom of all the warriors and the leaders of the armies and even the king himself to face the giant Goliath, armed with nothing but a slingshot.  That is so awesome, right?  God took this young man, a child really, and performed a miracle so that Israel would win the victory!  

Or not.   Consider this.  The flocks that Jesse’s youngest son watched represented a large portion of his family’s wealth.  He would be out in the fields with them for weeks, maybe even months, at a time.  He would help ewes deliver their lambs, he would chase down any of the silly things that wandered off and got lost (and for those of you who don’t know, sheep are not the brightest animals on God’s green earth!).  And he protected them from dangers, from lions and tigers and bears, oh my.  OK, not tigers.  But hear what the Bible has to say about the David who was eventually presented to Samuel.  “Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.”    A few verses later, when Saul asks someone to find him a skilled musician to help combat the evil spirits tormenting him, 18 One of the young men answered, “I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite who is skillful in playing, a man of valor, a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence; and the Lord is with him.”     An accomplished musician, a skilled warrior, proficient in the use of the sling, a man of valor.  Not a child.  Not an adorable shepherd boy.  A man - a man who had God’s favor from that day forward.  

I know, I hate killing beloved myths.   I love myths and legends.  You should have seen me when I first learned that the legend of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox was an advertising gimmick!  I was devastated.  I was a bit disappointed when these truths about David were pointed out to me, too.  But, we all have to grow up sometime, I suppose.  And the fact of the matter is, this young warrior did go up against Goliath, and did defeat him in what was maybe not quite a fair fight because he was armed with and proficient in the use of one of the deadliest long distance weapons  of the time, and Goliath was expecting hand to hand combat.  (I know, another myth bites the dust.  Sorry.  Not sorry.)

But that’s not the point of today’s story.  The point of today’s story is that Samuel listened to God, went to Bethlehem even though he was fearful that Saul would find out and have him killed.  Samuel listened to God and passed over the first, strong and attractive, son of Jesse, and the second and all of the seven who were presented to him, because no matter how suitable they may have seemed, God knew which one was the right one, and it wasn’t one of them.  And although David was every bit as attractive as his brothers and as strong and as brave, he was the youngest.  The youngest son was rarely ever the one receiving the greatest blessing.  Samuel listened to God even though left to his own human devices (and prejudices) would have chosen the oldest, or the best looking, or the strongest appearing, or the most articulate.   Later, David would be disobedient.  He would commit terrible sins.  He would even be denied permission to build a Temple for God.  But he never lost God’s favor.  He was always “a man after God’s own heart.”  

We have no idea who God is going to choose to do God’s work in the world.  God has made a lot of strange choices.  Rahab, a prostitute, helped God’s people defeat Jericho.  Ruth, a Moabite, became an ancestor of David.   Martin Luther King, Jr., who really only wanted to be the pastor of his church, a church which, by the way, had fired his predecessor for excessive activism, became the leader of the Civil Rights movement.  An Albanian nun who expected to teach all her life, heard God’s call to work with the poor and sick in India, and is now known as Saint Teresa.   So many of God’s choices seem strange to us.  But every choice God makes is the right choice.  Even if the outcome isn’t exactly what was expected, as was the case with Saul, God’s choice is always the right one.  God’s direction is always the right direction.  And we should always listen.

On Wednesday I received a card in the mail with $40 cash inside.  I contacted my friend, who said she was told to send it to me, and that it was supposed to let my light shine.  So I took it with me to the MDA Lockup the very next day and the light of that gift will benefit some child with Muscular Dystrophy.  

When you hear God speaking to you, when that still small voice whispers in the back of your head, or when you are hit upside the head with a God-by-4 (which happens to me much more often than the still, small, voice) - listen!   Even if it seems like a strange direction, listen.   Even if the idea of doing what God says is frightening, as it was to Samuel, listen.  Because the Good News from today’s passage is this - God chooses whom God will, and even if we feel unworthy, even if we think we aren’t good enough, even if we are afraid to step out, even if we think we aren’t the right kind of person to do whatever it is that the voice tells us to do, God’s choices to be his hands and feet and voice in the world are always the right choices. There is no right or wrong kind of person.   God selects us, just as we are, to do whatever best suits the gifts and talents that we have been given, to serve God’s people in the world.    Go out, then, without fear, for God is with you.