Sunday, June 26, 2016

“The Miseducation of Faith” (Galatians 5:1, 13-25)

I imagine that just about every person here is familiar with The Wizard of Oz . . . we’ve all seen it at least a couple of times in our lifetimes.  The actual title of the book, written in 1900 by L. Frank Baum, was The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  In 1902 it was a popular Broadway musical that was later adapted in 1939 to the movie we all know. 

We all know the story about Dorothy and her dog, Toto, who are swept up in a tornado in Kansas and end up in the magical and mystical Land of Oz.  Her mode of transportation is her farmhouse that lands on the wicked witch of the east killing her instantly.  She is given the ruby red shoes of the witch as a gift of gratitude from the people of the Munchkin Country in the Land of Oz.  Confused, all Dorothy wants to do is to get back home . . . to get back to her family in Kansas.  After a big celebration, the Munchkins and the good witch of the north, Glenda, send Dorothy and Toto down the yellow brick road to the Emerald City to find the great and powerful Wizard of Oz.

Of course, the death of the wicked witch of the east did not sit well for everyone.  Her sister, the wicked witch of the west, was quite upset about her sister’s death, but even more upset that Dorothy got the ruby red shoes . . . the power source of her sister’s magic.  So she proceeds to make life miserable for Dorothy and the companions she picks up along the way—the tin man, the scarecrow, and the cowardly lion.  It is an adventure filled with peril and scary things.  The ragtag group eventually makes it to the Emerald City and speak to the great and powerful Oz . . . who then sends them on a mission . . . to get the broom of the wicked witch of the west.

Doing as they are told, they set off to get the broom.

Forwarding ahead in the story, Dorothy succeeds in eliminating the wicked witch of the west and getting her broom.  Then she and her friends discover that the great and powerful Wizard of Oz is a mortal man . . . an itinerant magician from Kansas.  This was not a magical and powerful man who could grant Dorothy her wish to go home . . . but, he offers her a ride in his hot air balloon back to Kansas.  Of course, things get messed up and Dorothy misses this opportunity.

Grief-stricken that she is stuck in the Land of Oz, she begins to cry.  Glenda, the good witch of the north, attempts to console Dorothy.  She tells her that she can get home . . . in fact, she says, she has always had the ability to get home.  It was within her.  All she had to do is to close her eyes, click the heels of the ruby red slippers, and say, “There is no place like home, there is no place like.”  Well, we all know that it works . . . Dorothy makes it home.

Throughout the story, whatever Dorothy is told to do in order to get what she wants—which is to go home, Dorothy does.  But, in the end, it is not what Dorothy does that gets her home, it is what is in her heart.  In our reading this morning, the Apostle Paul tells the congregations in Galatia the same thing.

Galatia is a largely Gentile community in which the good news of Jesus spread quickly.  Lots of Gentiles were starting to follow Jesus and his ways.  Yet, despite the evangelistic zeal and success, there arose a conflict between those who considered themselves the original followers—meaning those who were Jews that started to follow Jesus, and those who were jumping on the bandwagon much later.  The original followers declared that these Gentile converts had to follow the ways of the Mosaic Law, after all, Jesus was a Jew.  In particular there were those who demanded that the Gentiles be circumcised.

Of course there were those who did exactly what they were told and got themselves circumcised; and, there were those who balked at the idea.  Circumcision beyond the first few weeks of life is not what any adult male wants to endure.  Yet, here were these original followers telling the new followers to either follow the rules or get out of the game.

The Apostle Paul did not agree with the original followers because it did not fit his understanding of grace and faith.  Grace and faith were a gift freely given to all who wished to receive it . . . nothing had to be done to be among the faithful.  There were no hoops to jump through, no brooms to steal . . . no, the grace of God was freely given.  No one had to do anything except to believe and receive the love of God into their hearts.  No one had to follow a yellow brick road . . . no one had to bow down to anyone else . . . or even take a broom from a wicked witch.  All one had to do is to believe and accept the gift of grace.

This past Friday I attended “boundaries training”.  Boundaries training is the information that clergy within our region must be taught every three years in order to keep their standing as clergy within the denomination and region.  It is basically a workshop on what clergy can and cannot do.  It is learning what lines not to cross.  Our regional minister, the Reverend Dr. Ruth Fletcher, did a good job of sharing that information.  And, the greatest piece of advice and information that she gave to those of us gathered was that we should always be asking the question, “Is this meeting my needs or the needs of the whole—the needs of the community—the needs of the congregation?”  All that we clergy are supposed to do as clergy is to meet the needs of the common good.

The answer to that question comes from within each minister . . . it comes from the heart.  That answer is always “love”.  In our reading this morning the Apostle Paul says it: “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”    In Paul’s argument we love because we are loved . . . we love ourselves, we love God, and we love others.  It is doing what is good for all of God’s family . . . all of God’s creation.  We are to love.

Paul’s argument is that it is not following the rules to the letter that gets a person entrance into the home place.  Anyone can follow the rules whether he or she even believes in the purpose of the rules.  No, it is the intention . . . is life guided by rules or is it guided by intention?  Is it lived in love?  Paul argues that it is love that guides the individual.  Once a person has love in his or her life, then the rules have no power over them because they will do what is expected . . . they will love.

The apostle gives a hefty list of things that those who are not in the state of grace will do.  As you go through that list did you notice that those things are all based on what an individual wants for him or herself.  Consider that original question . . . is this for the good of the individual, or is it for good of all?

That is the “mark” of the faithful . . . a “spirit” that calls us to consider the good for all . . . to do God’s will for the whole family.  The Spirit calls the faithful out to love others . . . to serve others . . . and, to put the self second.  Quoting Jesus, it is simple . . . to love others as you would love yourself.  Instead of looking for what is in it for me, we look for what is in it for everyone.  Does everyone win?

Faith is not about what we are not supposed to do.  Yet, that is what most of us know about faith . . . what we are not supposed to do.  We know the “don’ts”.  Aren’t those the “thou shall nots” that we tell each other?  No, that is not faith.  Faith is about intention and where that intention comes from.  It comes from within us . . . it comes from our hearts.  Hearts that have been touched by the love and grace of God.  Hearts that fill so full of that love that it cannot be contained . . . that it must be shared.  It feels so good that we want others to feel it too.  It comes not from serving our needs, but the needs of others.

Miseducation is the teaching of something incorrectly.  For many of us we have been incorrectly instructed when it comes to matters of faith . . . we have been given the wrong information.  It is not what we do that matters, it is why we do it.  Are we doing it because we want to be saved as individuals, or are we doing it because we want all to be saved?  Love knows no boundaries . . . it reaches across the lines to bring everyone in.

Kris Kristofferson wrote the song, Me and Bobbie McGee, in which he throws out one of the most powerful theological statements every made.  He sings: “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.”  That is exactly what the Apostle Paul is saying.  Because God loves you, and you love God, you have it all.  Go forth and love deeply, wholly, and radically change the world in which you.  If you do, people will know . . . people will know by the love you give.  Amen.  

Sunday, June 19, 2016

“Encountering the Holy” (I Kings 19:1-15a)

I think that when it comes to television I am sort of an anomaly.  According to the Nielsen media ratings company’s 2014 report, the average American watches more than five hours of television a day . . . I’m lucky if I watch five hours of television in a month.  A big part of the reason I do not watch television is because of the commercials that dominate the screen.  Did you ever notice that the volume goes up whenever a commercial comes on . . . the television actually gets louder?  Madison Avenue is yelling at the viewers to get them to listen and buy their products.  Studies show that in an hour-long show, over one-fourth of the hour is dedicated to commercials.  Since most commercials are 15 to 30 seconds in length, that is 30 to 60 commercials per hour.  Is it any wonder that we are a consumer nation?

Commercials drive me crazy while watching television.  They are intrusive.  They are pushy.  And, they are loud.  Again, studies show that the volume goes up whenever a commercial is aired.  Those companies want you to hear what they are selling.  About the time that I moved to Montana I had had enough.  I was tired of being hollered at as singer John Prine says in his song, Quit Hollerin’ At Me.

I don’t want your big French Fry
I don’t want your car
I don’t want to buy no soap
From no washed-up movie star
You are so much louder
Than the show I wanna hear
With your sugarless gum
Gee, but I’m dumb
Non-alcoholic beer
It’s enough to make a grown man
Blow up his own TV
Quit hollerin’ at me
Quit hollerin’ at me

As I have gotten older, I have grown tired of all the voices hollering at me.

Aren’t you tired of all the voices hollering at you?

We are in the thick of the election year and the voices of all the candidates keep getting louder and louder.  Vote for me!  Vote for me!  From the community we live in to the highest office in our country, the politicians are out in force hollering at us.  Add to that all those who support the various candidates . . . their rants and raves are getting louder and louder too.

Adding to the symphony of hollering and noise we have our already elected officials who can’t seem to stand in the same universe without hollering at one another and us.  No one in politics talks, they holler at each other.  Also, adding to the noise in the world around us in which we live our lives on a daily basis.  There is a whole lot of hollering going on.  The voices cry out from those places where there is rampant violence taking place . . . wars, terrorism.  The voices scream from those touched by crisis and natural disasters.  The hollering comes from those who are starving and dying because there is not enough food.  The noise escalates from the oppressed, the persecuted, and the forgotten.  The world is a noisy place and it is always hollering at us all.

Add to that those voices who holler at us in our own personal lives.  We all have them.  The boss . . . the spouse . . . the children . . . friends . . . the community . . . even, the church.  They are all hollering at us . . . wanting our attention.  Then, add to all that hollering the hollering we do at ourselves.  We live in a time of noise.

Don’t you want to do what John Prine does?  Don’t you just want to shout, “Quit hollerin’ at me!”  Don’t you just want to run away . . . to get away from it all?

In the story of the prophet Elijah that we have heard over the past couple of weeks, we know that he was chosen by God to bring the people back to God.  A tough job in a dangerous time . . . especially when one considers that he is taking on a well-entrenched religious machine in the religion of Baal that is spreading like wildfire through God’s people.  But, he does as he is told.  He confronts the people.  He confronts the proponents of the Baal religion.  He wins and destroys the prophets and priests of Baal.  And, yet, the people do not come back.

In defeating the prophets and priests of Baal . . . actually he has them all killed . . . he upsets Queen Jezebel.  In her anger she promises that she will kill Elijah for what he has done.  This is a pretty serious threat that Elijah takes seriously.  Fearing for his life . . . well, he runs.  He runs as far away from Jezebel as he can get.

That is where we pick up the story.  Elijah is on the run.  When he finally stops and takes a break from his running is he exhausted . . . he is hungry . . . frustrated . . . and, too weak to continue running.  He confesses to the Lord that he is tired of it all . . . tired of all the hollering taking place in his life.  He asks the Lord to let him die and be done with it all.  He falls asleep.  Eventually he gets awaken by angel. There is food and water.  He is told to get up and eat, which he does . . . but, the exhaustion of it all is too much and he falls back asleep. 

Again, the angel awakes Elijah.  Tells him to eat and drink a second time.  But, this time the angel acknowledges the feelings and emotions that Elijah is feeling: “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.”   And, so, Elijah does as he is told.  Finding renewed strength, Elijah begins to run again.  He runs for 40 days and 40 nights until he comes to the place of God, Mount Horeb.  There he crawls into a cave, exhausted, and falls asleep.

As Elijah is sleeping . . . the voice of God comes to him.  The voice comes to him and wants to know what he is doing there.  Elijah basically tells God that he is tired of being hollered at . . . “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty.  The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword.  I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me.”  Elijah is tired of all of the hollering in his life, including the hollering from God.

What makes this passage . . . this story . . . so powerful is the fact that we know exactly how Elijah feels.  We know how he feels because we have felt the same way at points in our own lives and in our own journeys of faith.  We can identify with Elijah . . . we can identify with the tiredness and frustration of being yelled at by all the voices in our lives.  Tired of all the hollering.

But, you cannot escape God.

Elijah is told by God that soon God would soon pass by.  God tells Elijah to go and stand in the presence of the Lord.  “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”  Elijah did as he was told . . . he waited for God’s arrival.

First a wind storm came destroying the mountain and all the rocks, but God was not in the wind storm.  Next came an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake.  Then came a raging fire, and still God was not in the fire.  Finally, a quietness . . . a stillness . . . and, a gentle whisper.  Elijah heard it and went to the mouth of the cave, covering his face, and stood before God. 

God did not come to Elijah in the noise of the world, but came to Elijah is the quiet stillness of the moment.  The Lord did not yell at Elijah, but spoke in a gentle whisper.  God asked, again, what Elijah was doing.  And, again, Elijah told the Lord that he was tired of all the hollering.  The Lord listened.

Then, the Lord said to Elijah, “Go back the way you came . . .”

And, Elijah did as he was told to do . . . he went to finish the job that the Lord had called him to do.

The world in which we live in is never going to be any quieter . . . it is always going to be a noisy place in which there will be constant hollering around us and at us.  And, yes, all that hollering is going to get tiresome and frustrating as we attempt to discern God’s will and touch upon our lives.  And, yes, we will have those moments when we want to run away and call it quits.  Yet, we can never escape God.

When people holler and yell and scream . . . they do so because they believe that they can be heard better . . . and, if they can be heard, well then, they will be given the attention that they desire.  Any good school teacher knows that the quickest way to quiet a class and get their attention is not in yelling, but in being quiet . . . in speaking softly.  God speaks softly to each and every one of us.  It is we who need to find that space in our lives where the quiet whisper of God can be heard. 

Once we have stepped into the quietness of God’s presence, heard the gentle whisper of the Lord, we find strength and hope to go another day.  Then we step back into the noise and all the hollering . . . renewed.  May it always be so.  Amen.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

“Doubt in the Face of Faith” (I Kings 17:8-24)

Being in a relationship and following the will of God in our lives can be a tough task.  Ask Elijah . . . called by God to bring some common sense into the children of God who were slipping off into the opposite direction of God and God’s will . . . there was some reluctance on the part of Elijah to do God’s will; but, God assured him that everything would be okay.  So, onward went Elijah to do God’s will.  In doing God’s will, Elijah upset the wrong people . . . made them mad . . . and, had to hightail it out of there for his own life.  Not quite what Elijah thought God had in mind when God said that everything would be okay.

Upsetting the powers that be had Elijah on the run for his life.  Complicating matters were the drought and famine that inhabited the land because of the people’s unfaithfulness.  There was no food.  This did not seem like the life of one who was appointed to do God’s will.  Fearing for his life and hungry, Elijah ran . . . and, God came through.  First, God had ravens—an unclean bird to the Jews—bring food to Elijah to eat.  It is amazing how one will bend and break the rules when one is hungry enough.  But, God provides.

Then God tells him to go to the community of Zarephath—a Gentile community—to seek refuge and a place hard struck by the drought and famine.  God instructs Elijah that there will be a widow there who will feed him during this time of hardship.  Of course, it happens . . . Elijah goes to Zarephath and comes upon a widow gathering sticks.  Elijah asks her to bring him drink and food.  Elijah is shocked by the widow’s response . . . she is gathering sticks to fix a fire to prepare a meal for her and her son . . . their last meal as she only has enough flour to barely themselves.  It is their last meal before they die.

Again, this is not quite the treatment the prophet expected when God said that God would take care of everything.  God sends him to a widow who barely has enough to feed herself and her son . . . to a widow who is preparing her last meal before dying.  I imagine Elijah was having a moment of doubt about the intentions of God . . . wondering whether or not God was playing with a full deck of cards.  Despite whatever doubt there might have been, Elijah insists that the woman do just as she had planned and to bring him some food to eat . . . God will take care of things, he assures her.

And, sure enough, God does . . . God provides plenty of food to feed herself, her son, and Elijah . . . the jar of flour and the jug of oil never empty until God brings rain upon the land—nearly two years later.

But the story doesn’t end there.

A while later, the widow’s son grows ill and eventually dies.  She is angry.  She is confused.  She accuses Elijah of using her son’s death as a reminder of her sinfulness.  Suddenly she has doubts about what is happening despite the unending supply of food she has to eat.  Needless to say, Elijah is caught off-guard by the turn of events.  This is definitely not the way one pays back another for hospitality.  He wonders what God is doing . . . “O Lord my God, have you brought tragedy upon this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?”

In anguish, Elijah takes the boy to the room where he is staying, lays him upon the bed and breaks down crying.  He cries out to God and asks that God “. . . let life return to him!”  Over and over again, Elijah cried out to God to bring the boy to life . . . and, God does.

This is probably not a story that we are going to go out into the world and use as an evangelism tool . . . use as something to get people to drop everything that they are doing and jump into a relationship with God through Jesus.  It is not an easy story to listen to.  It is a story that is filled with hardship . . . filled with questions, lots of questions . . . filled with doubt when it comes to being in a relationship with God.  It is a story that seems to turn every time that God steps up to help as promised . . . turn for the worse.  It is not a story that makes us all jump up and down with glee . . . it is a story that makes us step back and consider our own journeys of faith . . . that makes us think of our own doubt in the face of faith.

Since all relationships—human or divine—are based on honesty; then we need to be honest with ourselves and with God . . . there are moments in our lives when we have our doubts about God and our relationship with God . . . that we have doubts in the face of faith.  Let’s admit it . . . we all do.

In this day and age of reason and science, I have encountered many folks over the years who question the miraculous side of the scriptures.  They have a difficult time accepting the miracles that they read in the scriptures as actually happening the way that they happened.  They want explanations . . . they want to know how these things happen . . . how does this magic happen?  Like the magic they witness from a magician, they know that it is an illusion or a slight of the hand . . . that there is some trick to the miracle.  And, the truth of the matter is . . . they have some doubt when it comes to their faith.  As much as they want to fully jump into their faith with two feet, they are a little leery that things are not quite what they seem.

I am sure that is the way Elijah felt.  God promised him that everything would be fine and all Elijah got out of the relationship was one great big mess.  It seemed that every time God fixed one mess, Elijah was stepping into another.  I am sure that Elijah had his doubts about this God-relationship.

I am sure that the widow felt the same way.  A widow was not a status in life that any person wanted in Elijah’s time . . . it was a time of hardship and survival.  When the widow encounters Elijah she is in the process of preparing the last meal for herself and her son before dying.  She probably thought Elijah was a pompous fool for asking her to provide for him when she barely had enough for herself.  But, she bit the bait . . . what did she have to lose?  And, God came through and she started to believe . . . then her son dies.  Nothing added up.  She began to have her doubts about this God-relationship . . . about Elijah.

I have a friend through my work at the university who seemed to have the golden life.  He was the best in his field . . . respected by his peers and his employees.  He lived a blessed life . . . enjoyed it to the fullest . . . and, everything seemed to go his way.  He was a person of strong faith . . . and, he did not take for granted the blessings of his life.  Then, one day, he woke up and did not feel right.  He had a difficult time getting through the day at work, and soon found it hard to go to work.  Everything seemed to be falling apart.  He had to take a leave of absence from his work as he sought out answers to his health problems going to see medical experts all over the United States.  The bright world he lived in was growing darker and darker . . . he began to question and wonder about why God was letting this happen to him; after all, he was a person of great faith.  He was beginning to have doubt . . . doubt in the face of his faith.

It has been a little over a year since all of this happened to my friend.  His health has improved, but it is not back to what it once was . . . he is still having difficulties.  He is back to work, but it is not as robust as it once was . . . he has been limited in what he can do.  The darkest of his world has gotten brighter, but the shadows still lurk on the edges of his life.  And, he admits that he had his doubts.  He also admits, that despite his doubts he went forward in his journey . . . he went forward because if he didn’t he knew he would die.  What else did he have to lose?  He chose to move forward on the promise that God would never abandon him.

Going back to that honesty thing . . . we all have doubts.  And, just because we have our doubts doesn’t mean we are any less faithful or loving towards God.  It means we have our questions.  It means we are in the thick of the relationship . . . in the throes of relating openly and honestly with the one who loves us . . . being open and real . . . being who God created us to be.  Deep down we believe that God will take care of us and all of our needs; but, we have those moments when we wonder . . . Elijah wondered . . . the widow wondered . . . and, God came through with the promise that has been made to all of us.  God never left.

Being in any relationship is not easy if it is a “real” relationship.  It is not a smooth ride . . . there are always going to be bumps in the road . . . there are questions and concerns . . . there is doubt.  Despite all of that, there is also the love that connects.  And, because of that love we step through the difficult times, survive the bumps, work through the questions and concerns, and admit that there is doubt.  And, despite it all, we do not quit.  God does not quit on us, and we should not quit on God.  No matter how difficult life can be . . . God will always stand beside us, carry us, and take care of us.  There can be faith even in the face of doubt . . . you just have to believe.  God is with us.  Amen.