Monday, May 30, 2016

“Head-Cutting” (I Kings 18:20-39)

And the prophet Elijah stood before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions?  If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”

In response the people just stood there in silence.

First Kings continues the history of the Israelite monarchy begun in the books of Samuel.  The book is divided into three parts: the succession of Solomon as king of Israel and Judah, and the death of his father David; the reign and achievements of Solomon as king—especially building the Temple in Jerusalem; and, the division of the nation into the northern and southern kingdoms, and the stories of the kings who ruled them. 

Our story begins in the “divided kingdom” saga.  The kingdom has been divided . . . Ahab is the king of the northern kingdom or Israel.  The kingdom is slowly slipping away from God and moving towards the religion of Baal.  Exacerbating the situation is Ahab’s arranged marriage to Jezebel, who brought into the marriage her entourage of Baal priests and prophets.  Into this mess God sends Elijah to bring the people back to their senses and their God.  Elijah represents and speaks as God’s prophet.

At this point in the story, a showdown has been arranged, and Elijah is confronting the people . . . challenging the people . . . to quit sitting on the fence and make a choice . . . are they going to be God’s people or are they going to follow Baal.  “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; if Baal is God, follow him.” 

And, nothing happens.

So begins the showdown.  It is 450 against one . . . 450 of Baal’s priests and prophets against God’s lone representative.  The challenge is simple: make a sacrificial offering to their God . . . the God that lights up the sacrificial fire wins. 

In 1986 the movie, Crossroads, came out.  It is a classic story of the devil versus human for his or her soul.  As the story goes, there is a “crossroad” where the devil waits to make deals for people’s souls . . . things like wealth and fame for the individual’s soul.  There at the crossroad the deals are made, and the devil expects full payment. 

The movie is about a young man who is an extraordinary talent in playing the classical guitar . . . he is a student at Julliard, but his heart is in the “blues”.  In his interest in the blues he discovers the story of the legendary Robert Johnson’s lost and unknown 30th song.  He finds a lead to discovering the song’s whereabouts . . . in his mind he believes that if he can find the song and record it for the world to be heard; he will become the famous blues player he longs to be.  That lead is an old blues player in one of the old folk’s homes by the name of Willie Brown.  Willie leads Eugene on and promises him the song if he will help him bust out of the nursing home and get back down to the Mississippi Delta—the heart of the blues.  But, the truth of the matter is, Willie doesn’t care one iota about the song, he just wants to get back down to the “crossroad” where he made a deal with the devil a long, long time ago in his own youth.

Of course the movie involves all the travels and adventures of getting down to the “crossroad” . . . and, it is filled with lots of great blues music; but the climax comes when they encounter the devil at the “crossroad”.  Willie wants his soul back . . . the devil isn’t interested in making a deal.  Willie offers a proposition . . . he will challenge the devil to a “head-cutting” contest.  A “head-cutting” is a traditional contest (at least among musicians) between two guitarists who duel it out with their guitars in an attempt to match or out-play the other.  Whoever accomplishes the goal of making the other one quit wins.  It is a musical showdown.

Willie challenges the devil to a “head-cutting”.  If he wins, he gets his soul back.  If he loses, the devil gets his soul and the soul of his representative . . . Eugene.  If it is the devil, it is the devil; if it is Eugene, it is Eugene . . . there is no in-between . . . it is one or the other.

Sound familiar?

Ol’ Elijah is in a ‘head-cutting” contest.  The winner takes all.  There is no half-way . . . no sitting on the fence . . . a decision must be made.  The priests and prophets get down to work.  They cut up a bull and place it on wood to be burned . . . then they proceed to call on Baal to light the fire and burn the sacrifice.  They sang . . . they dances . . . they prayed . . . and, they yelled.  But nothing happens.  Around noon, Elijah begins to taunt the priests and prophets . . . “Shout louder! Surely he is a god!  Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling.  Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.”  So they shouted louder and even began to slash their bodies until blood began to flow.  But, nothing changed . . . no fire.

Then it was Elijah’s turn . . . the evening sacrifice.  Unlike the priests and prophets of Baal, Elijah goes beyond the “norms” of the sacrifice.  Elijah repairs the altar of YahWeh . . .he builds an altar of stones . . . he digs a sizeable trench . . . he arranges the offering wood . . . slaughters a bull . . . and, then he has everything drenched in water, not once—but, three times!  With everything drench and soaked to the core, Elijah prays.  In prayer, Elijah acknowledges God and the rich relationship of God’s people to God.

And . . . then . . . “fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.”  The fire burns ferocity beyond the normal physics of fire.  God has answered . . . contest over.

“When the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, ‘The LORD—he is God!  The LORD—he is God!’”

This story of Elijah “head-cutting” with the priests and prophets of Baal points to something that confronts all of us in our journey of faith.  It asks us to make a decision, and that decision is whether or not we are going to fully embrace God to be in a relationship . . . whether or not we are going to take our rightful places in the family of God.  As Elijah tells the people of Israel, it is one way or another . . . you can’t have it both ways.  You are either with God, or without God.  There is no fence-sitting allowed.

Sometimes we forget whose we are.

As we journey through life we can get hurried in our lives . . . we can be stressed out . . . we can be overwhelmed by all that is going on and happening in our lives.  We can be given lots of options and choices to make, and not all of them are God’s.  We sit on the fence . . . unable to decide on “whose we are” . . . God’s or someone or something else?  And, the choice is ours.

The choice is always ours.

In this passage we can be inspired . . . inspired by the activity of God that swirls around us.  Through that activity we know that God is God.  Like the Israelites of Elijah’s time, we can fall on our faces and victoriously claim, “The LORD—he is God!  The LORD—he is God!”  God always wins.  Amen.

Oh, yeah . . . does Eugene win over the devil’s guitarist in the movie, Crossroads?  You’ll have to watch it to find out!

Sunday, May 22, 2016

"Radical Gratitude: Becoming Human" (Romans 5:1-5)

“Is that all?  Now what?”

In all honesty, that was what I was thinking after I came up out of the baptismal waters in that church sanctuary over forty years ago.  My baptism wasn’t quite what I had expected after listening to my friend Paul describe his baptism.  Paul was the “golden boy” of the church youth group that he talked me into attending.  He was “Mr. Everything” . . . good looking, smart, athletic, musical, and knew that he was going to be a minister one day saving the world from itself for the glory of God . . . and, he was popular with the girls.

Listening to Paul tell the story of his baptism he expounded upon the glory of it all.  He described how he went under the water, surrounded by the embracing love of God, and came up out of the depths of sin into a life of grace.  But, more importantly, he described how the heavens split open, the heavenly choirs began to sing, and a dove descended . . . it was a heavenly coronation straight out of the Bible.  He was saved.

Coming up out of the murky water . . . I think I was the fourth person baptized that afternoon . . . there was no parting of the heavenly clouds . . . there was no heavenly choir singing . . . and, there definitely was no dove descending from the heavens or even the rafters of the church.  Nope, there was just me . . . standing there in a dripping robe, freezing thanks to the air conditioning in the church . . . with the only noise that could be heard was the crying of my younger brother.  Crying because he did not understand the pastor’s words about the “old dying and the new being born” . . . he was certain that as the pastor immersed me in the baptismal waters that he was drowning me . . . that I was as good as dead.  So, he cried. 

Having not received the heavenly coronation that my friend Paul had received . . . dripping wet and freezing . . . I stood there and wondered, “Is that all?  Now what?”

We Christians can have the tendency of seeing our conversion to faith . . . conversion into a relationship with God . . . our salvation . . . as a sort of holy insurance policy.  Having a holy insurance policy we have a tendency to think that we are covered by the grace of God and that nothing will ever make life difficulty; after all, God is watching over us and taking care of us.  With this policy, life is good and we can breeze through it with the minimal discomfort that those who are not “saved” cannot.  With God all things are good. 

Isn’t that what the Apostle Paul says in our scripture reading this morning?  “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we stand.  And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.”  Sounds like God has got us covered . . . so, why worry?  Why fret?  Life is good because we are God’s!  We don’t have to do anything because we are covered by the grace of God.

Despite the fact there seems to be a tendency to fall into this “holy insurance” frame of mind as a Christian, the truth is that reality is far, far from this rosy picture of salvation.  Faith . . . being in a relationship with God . . . is tough work.  There are no easy pathways through life if one is truly embracing his or her relationship with God . . . it is not easy to do the will of God.  It is hard work.

Yet, that “holy insurance” policy mindset seems to pop up in our faith from time to time when we catch ourselves in difficult situations . . . when life gets tough . . . when we are hurting, lost, and lonely . . . when we feel the farthest from God.  We wonder, “Is that all? Now what?”  And, we find ourselves stuck.  Stuck in a place where we do not want to be, and feeling as if we have been abandoned and duped.  We think to ourselves, “This isn’t what we were promised when we signed up for this!”

Well, the Apostle Paul was right . . . but, at the same time, we should learn to read the “fine print”.  Paul said that through faith we have been saved.  Yet, he never said that having such faith would be a cake walk through the park.  No, he said the journey would be tough.  From his own experience he knows that the journey will be tough.  No one should doubt the difficulty of the apostle’s journey of faith.  Thus he did not end his statement in our reading this morning with the words that we heard earlier; no, he had more to say.

“Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, character; and character, hope.  And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” 

Yeah, we are covered . . . but . . .

We have all probably heard the statement by Mother Teresa in which she speaks about the old saying “that God will not give us more than we can handle.”  That statement in which she says, "I know God won't give me anything I can't handle. I just wish he didn't trust me so much."

The truth of the matter is that through our faith we have come into a relationship with God . . . an intimate and intense relationship with God.  We have been restored into that intimacy of knowing and loving God.  Our hearts have been filled with the love of God by the Holy Spirit.  Our hearts are God’s heart . . . and, what God feels, we feel . . . and, what we feel, God feels.  Because of this we rejoice.  We rejoice in the glory of having been restored into a relationship with God.  And, we rejoice because with that relationship comes the desire to do God’s will . . . a will that often brings with it suffering.  Through it all, good and bad, God stands with us . . . never abandons us.

Our faith is not a “get out of jail” card.  Our faith does not allow us to sit back and enjoy the ride.  Our faith is a call to follow the example and life of Jesus who has shown us the way.  It is to do the will of God and to go where the voice of God has called us to go.  And, no one ever promised that it would be easy.  In fact, many of those who have gone before us in the journey of faith, and those firmly rooted in that journey now, will tell you that is hard.  Yet, the promise of God . . . because we have faith . . . is that nothing will ever destroy that relationship . . . nothing will ever separate us from the love of God or God.  Thus we should rejoice.

I imagine that this idea of showing gratitude not only in the good times, but the bad times, seems a little strange.  Who wants to be grateful for hard times in one’s life.  Yet, we all know that life is not easy . . . that the path is not always smooth . . . that there are unexpected surprises and crises . . . that we get scared, lonely, and lost.  Who wants to be grateful for that?  Yet, it is a part of our journey . . . and, whether we like it or not, we cannot escape it.  Through it we grow.  We grow stronger as individuals, and we grow stronger in our relationship with God.  Thus we must embrace our suffering as much as we embrace our glory.  We live lives of radical gratitude.

In living lives of radical gratitude we discover our humanness . . . we discover ourselves as God created us . . . we become “human” as many Native American cultures would say.  We care.  We love.  We grow.  We come closer to realizing the Kingdom of God that surrounds us.  We do not sit around waiting for the heavenly gift . . . no, we embrace the gift that is already ours and we live our lives faithfully.  There is no holy insurance policy . . . there is only faith that calls us into action to serve and love God and others.

Many years ago at my baptism, I might have thought, “Is this all? Now what?”  But now, I can assure you that standing in a sanctuary dripping wet while waiting for the heavens to burst forth in angelic choirs was not the end of my journey of faith . . . no, it was only the beginning.  I can also assure you that it has been a wild adventure following in the footsteps of Jesus to do the will of God.  Because of it I have grown closer to who it is that God has created and called me to be . . . grown closer to God . . . and, grown closer to those whom I have been called upon to love and support in their journeys of faith and life.  I have also learned to be grateful . . . to live a life of radical gratitude.

Out of radical gratitude we are changed.  Mother Teresa says, “I used to pray that God would feed the hungry, or do this or that, but now I pray that he will guide me to do whatever I'm supposed to do, what I can do. I used to pray for answers, but now I'm praying for strength. I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things.”

Faith is not a mindset . . . not a holy insurance policy; faith is action born out of love.  For this we can all be grateful.  Amen.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

“Adopted” (Romans 8:14-17)

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.

At one point in my young life . . . while in junior high . . . there came a moment where all the right conditions came together to create the perfect storm.  First of all, there was the movie, My Side of the Mountain, which is about a young boy who runs away from home to live on great-gandfather’s abandoned farm in the Catskill Mountains.  He is tired of living with his family—his parents and eight siblings—in a cramped New York City apartment.  So off he goes to live on his own in the wilderness . . . to have his own adventures.  And, what wonderful adventures he has as he makes his home in an old hollowed-out tree while learning to survive and become independent.

The movie struck some cord on my heart-strings.  That was the first piece of impending storm brewing within me.  The second was . . . and I think this probably happens to all of us at some point when we are growing up . . . was the reality one day as I looked around at my family—my parents, two brothers and sister—that there must have been some terrible mistake.  These were not my people . . . these were not my parents . . . I didn’t have anything in common with this strange and crazy people who were living in the same house as me.  There was no way that these people could be my family . . . we weren’t the same.  And, as a young teenager, it was driving me crazy. 

Then it dawned on me . . . I must have been adopted. 

Now, let’s all be honest with ourselves.  I think that we all had those moments as children growing up in which we wondered whether or not we were adopted. 

Well, that was the piece of the picture that collided with the first piece creating the perfect storm.  I decided that I had to run away.  Living at the time at the Air Force Academy, in the foothills of the mountains, it made sense.  I would sneak out in the middle of the night, head for the mountains, find a hollowed-out tree, and begin my adventure towards independence and freedom from a family I did not choose.  I secretly saved what money I received, stockpiled food in my backpack, and slowly created my plan for escape. 

Of course it never happened.  Sometimes, as children, we do not take into consideration all the factors involved in decisions that we make.  For example, it was the middle of winter when I was making all of these plans.  The snow was up to my rear end on the ground . . . it was freezing cold . . . and, the blanket sleeping bag I had made wouldn’t even keep me warm on a cool summer day.  I didn’t have enough food stored up to get beyond the first teenage hunger attack . . . it would be gone in a matter of minutes as I was a bottomless pit at that age.  And, finding a hollowed-out tree in the pine tree infested wilderness of Colorado . . . big enough for a person to live in . . . in the middle of winter . . . seemed a little daunting.

So, I abandoned the dream and the storm passed by.  My parents showed me my birth certificate to prove that I wasn’t adopted . . . showed me pictures of me as an infant . . . and, assured me that I was their flesh and blood.  And, then my father told me that I had to deal with the cards that were dealt me . . . that is what families do.  Crazy and strange as I thought those individuals were, they were my family.

To be adopted is to be chosen by another.  In our minds we understand that adoption is the choosing of a child to become a part of a family and to be raised by that family as one of their own.  In adoption those who do the adopting are given all the legal and parental responsibilities of raising that child.  In the Apostle Paul’s time adoption was different.  The point of adoption had nothing to do with the interest of the person being adopted; it had to do with the interests of the person doing the adopting.  Adoption was a tool that strengthened political ties between wealthy families and created male heirs to manage estates.  It was also seen as a tool to ensure the continuity of cultural and religious practices.  In other words, it was seen as a means of insuring the desires and needs of the person doing the adopting.

In the New Revised Standard Version of the scripture, I read our passage this morning.  Unlike the earlier reading of this passage from our pew Bible which is from the New International Version, this version uses the term “adoption” . . . “. . . but you have received a spirit of adoption.”  The Apostle Paul is not talking about the form of adoption that you and me are familiar with; no, he is talking about a form of adoption that is familiar to him.  It is a form of adoption to benefit the one doing the adopting . . . to strengthen and insure the goals of the family in the world, and to create heirs who will manage the estate.  In this case, it is to fulfil the will of God.

I like the New Revised Standard Version much better than the version we use each Sunday morning.  I like it because of that word . . . “adoption”.  In this passage the apostle is telling his readers and listeners that they are “chosen” by God . . . intentionally chosen.  God wants them.  God wants them for a purpose.  That purpose is to fulfil God’s will in the world.  It is to insure that this new way of looking at faith . . . demonstrated by Jesus . . . is continued and fulfilled.  It is God’s desire that the chosen step up and receive their what God has begun . . . to step up and be the heirs that they are to the Kingdom of God.  If they fully receive this, then they too, will receive all that Jesus has shown them.

This is Paul’s understanding of what it means to be adopted.  We are chosen to become a part of God’s family for the purpose of insuring God’s will as demonstrated by Jesus.  We are chosen to work towards that Kingdom revealed by Jesus.  And, though it seems to be a cold and calculated relationship in these terms, the apostle tells us that it is actually a more intimate and intense relationship that goes beyond the formalities of adoption.  It is a relationship that is tied with the strings of the heart.  We do not enter into this relationship calling our parent the formal “Father”; no, we enter into it with the more intimate and relational term of “Abba” . . . or what we Westerners like to think of as “Daddy!”  Abba is a term of endearment acknowledging an intimacy that go far beyond the formality of a legal arrangement.

And, so . . . we are adopted . . . we are chosen by God to be the children, the sons and daughters of the Holy.  We are chosen to be the inheritors of the Kingdom to ensure that God’s will is fulfilled.  In this we find that we are desired and wanted . . . that we are necessary and needed . . . that we are God’s.  How do we know we are adopted?  That we are God’s?  The apostle tells us it is by the presence of the Spirit in our lives.  In adoption God places the Spirit into our lives.

Paul said, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God . . . it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are the children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ .”

On this Pentecost Sunday we celebrate this gift of the Spirit . . . we rejoice in our “adoption”.  We acknowledge our “mark” of family.  This is truly a graceful and loving gift that has been given to us; yet, it is also a gift with expectations and responsibilities.  We are to fulfil the will of God . . . to establish God’s kingdom in this time and place . . . to pass it on to future generations.  Jesus has shown us the way.

We are adopted.

Deep down, I always knew it.  Even way back when I was a kid in junior high, I had an inkling that I was adopted.  That I was a part of another family, a bigger family . . . but, never did I imagine that it was a “holy”—a “spiritual”—family.  Only years of traveling with Jesus in the journey of life have I come to realize this family that I have been adopted into.  It is the same for all of us . . . we have all been marked by the Spirit . . . called upon to wear the family crest . . . called upon to take our rightful places in the family . . . called upon to fulfil the family name and purpose.  We are God’s, and because we are God’s we are called to a higher calling and purpose.  Let us celebrate this day of adoption and embrace our place in the family of God.  Amen.