Divine Irony – Sermon on Exodus 2.1-10

Exodus 2.1-10

Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; and she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happened to him. The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

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Can you imagine what was going through the mother’s mind when she placed her little son in the papyrus basket? Can you see her tears flowing down on to the boy who would change the course of history because she was forbidden to let him live?

Everything had changed in Egypt. Joseph had been sold into slavery but saved the Egyptian people by storing up food for the coming famine. He was widely respected and his people were held in safety because of his actions. But eventually a new king arose over Egypt and he did not know Joseph. He feared the Israelites, their power, and their numbers.

The Israelites quickly went from being a powerful force within another nation, to a group of subjugated slaves who feared for their lives. They were forced to work in hard service in every kind of field labor, they were oppressed and belittled, and their family lives were slowly brought into jeopardy. Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill all the males born to Hebrew women, but when they resisted, he changed the decree so that “every boy that is born to the Hebrews shall be thrown into the Nile, but every girl shall live.

Once a prosperous and faithful people, the Israelites had lost everything. Yet, even in the times of greatest distress, people continue to live and press forward… A Levite man married a Levite woman and she conceived and bore a son. When he was born and she saw that he was good, she kept him hidden for three months. But a time came when she could no longer hide the child and she found herself making a basket to send her baby boy into the Nile.

Kneeling on the banks of the river, she kissed her son goodbye, placed him in the crude basket, and released him to the unknown. The boy’s sister, who was allowed to live in this new regime, sat along the dunes and watched her baby brother float down the river toward where a group of women we beginning to gather.

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Pharaoh’s daughter saw the basket among the reeds, and when she opened it she saw the boy, and took pity on him. She recognized that he was one of the Hebrew boys but she was compelled to be compassionate toward him. The sister, with a stroke of genius, realized that she had the opportunity to save her brother and stepped forward from her hiding place to address the princess. “Shall I go and find a nurse from the Hebrew woman to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to the young slave, “Yes.” So the girl went and found her mother, the mother of the child she had just released into the Nile, and brought her to the princess. Pharaoh’s daughter charged her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages for doing so.” So the mother received back her own son and nursed him. However, when the child grew up, she brought him back to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she adopted him as her son, and she called him Moses because “I drew him out of the water.”

This story about the birth and the childhood of Moses is one of the most familiar texts from the Old Testament. It has just the right amount of suspense, intrigue, serendipity, divine irony, human compassion, intervention, and it concludes with a happy ending. Moses’ birth has captivated faithful people for millennia and offers hope even amidst the most hopeless situations.

One of the greatest pastors I have ever known serves a new congregation in Northern Virginia. Jason Micheli has inspired countless Christians to envision a new life of faithfulness previously undiscovered. He played a pivotal role in my call to ministry, we have traveled on countless mission trips together, he presided over Lindsey’s and my wedding, but above all he is my friend.

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Jason and his wife Ali embody, for me, what a Christian relationship looks like. They support one another in their different ventures without overstepping their boundaries, they challenge each other to work for a better kingdom, and they believe in the Good News.

For a long time Jason and Ali knew that they wanted to adopt a child and they traveled to Guatemala when Gabriel was 15 months old to bring him home. As a young pastor and lawyer, Jason and Ali had busy schedules that were filled with numerous responsibilities that all dramatically changed the moment Gabriel entered their lives. They went from understanding and responding to the rhythms of one another to having a 15 month old living with them, a child who they were responsible for clothing, feeding, nurturing, and loving. I know that the first months must have been tough, but Ali and Jason are faithful people, they made mistakes and learned from them, they loved that precious child, and they continued to serve the needs of the community the entire time.

Jason and Gabriel

Jason and Gabriel

A year and a half later, just when the new patterns of life were finally becoming second nature, a lawyer who helped them find Gabriel contacted them. There was another family in the area who had adopted a 5 year old Guatemalan boy named Alexander, but they no longer wanted him. The lawyer recognized that Jason and Ali had recently adopted a child but wanted to find out if they would adopt another. However, the lawyer explained that this 5 year-old was supposedly very difficult, his adoptive family was ready to get rid of him, and he didn’t speak any English. Jason and Ali had a choice: lift this child out of the Nile, or let him continue to float down the river?

The story of Moses’ adoption by the Egyptian princess is filled with irony:

Pharaoh chose the Nile as the place where all Hebrew boys would be killed, and it became the means of salvation for the baby Moses.

The unnamed Levite mother saves her precious baby boy by doing precisely what Pharaoh commanded her to do.

The daughters of the Hebrews are allowed to live, and they are the one who subvert the plans of the mighty Pharaoh.

A member of the royal family, the Pharaoh’s daughter, ignores his policy, and saves the life of the one who will free the Hebrew people and destroy the Egyptian dynasty.

The Egyptian princess listens to the advice of the baby’s sister, a young slave girl.

The mother gets paid to do exactly what she wants to do most of all.

The princess gives the baby boy a name and in so doing says more than she could possibly know. Moses, the one who draws out, will draw God’s people out of slavery and lead them to the Promised Land.

Divine Irony! God loves to use the weak and the least to achieve greatness and change the world. God believes in using the low and despised to shame the strong and the powerful. God, in scripture and in life, works through people who have no obvious power and strengthens them with his grace.

How fitting that God’s plan for the future and the safety of the Hebrew children rests squarely on the shoulders of a helpless baby boy, a child placed in a basket, an infant released into the unknown. How fitting that God promised to make Abraham, a childless man with a barren wife, a father of more nations than stars in the sky? How fitting that God chose to deliver Noah from the flood on an ark, and young Moses from death in a basket floating on a river? God inverts the expectations of the world and brings about new life and new opportunities through the most unlikely of people and situations.

Jason and Ali prayed and prayed about the five-year old Guatemalan boy named Alexander. What would happen to them if they brought him into their lives? Everything was finally getting settled with Gabriel and they believed they had their lives figured out. They had planned everything perfectly, yet they we now being asked about bring a completely unknown, and perhaps devastating, element into their lives.

What would you have done? If you knew that there was a child, even with an unknown disposition, that was being abandoned by his adoptive family how would you react? Would you respond with open arms?

Alexander is now 11, soon to turn 12, and is without a doubt one of the most mature and incredible human beings I have ever met. After Jason and Ali met him for the first time they knew that God was calling them to bring him into their family, to love him with all that they had, and they responded like the faithful people they are, with open arms.

Jason, Ali, Alexander, and Gabriel

Jason, Ali, Alexander, and Gabriel

When Alexander arrived at Jason and Ali’s home, he came with the clothes on his back and nothing else. A five year old Guatemalan boy with little English was dropped off at their home; I can’t even imagine what it must have felt like for him. Yet, Jason and Ali brought him into their family and they never looked back. 

In the beginning, they had to sleep with him in his bed night after night, in attempts to comfort him and let him know that they were never going to leave him. That no matter what he did, no matter how far he fell, there was nothing that would ever separate their love for him. For a child that had been passed from person to family to family, Alexander had no roots, he had little comfort, and he had not experienced love.

Jason and Ali stepped into his life just as Alexander stepped into theirs. Perhaps filled with fear about what the future would hold for their little family Jason and Ali’s faithfulness shines brilliantly through the life of a young man named Alexander who I believe can, and will, change the world.

I imagine that for some time Jason and Ali believed that they, like Pharaoh’s daughter, had drawn Alexander out of the river of abandoned life. But I know that now when they look back, when they think about that fear of the unknown, they realize that Alexander was the one who drew them out of the water into new life. Divine Irony. 

In the story of Moses’ adoption out of the Nile, God is never mentioned. There are no divine moments when God appears on the clouds commanding his people to do something incredible, there are no decrees from a burning bush (not yet at least), and there are no examples of holy power coming from the heavens. Yet, God is the one working in and through the people to preserve Moses’ life and eventually the life of God’s people. God, like a divine conductor, orchestrates the music of life with changing movements and tempos that bring about transformation in the life of God’s people.

I believe that most of you, if not all of you, would take up a new and precious child into your lives. Whether you feel that you are too young, too old, too poor, too broken, you would accept that child into your family and raise it as your own. We are people of compassion, we are filled with such love that we can do incredible and beautiful things.

But it becomes that much harder when you look around and understand what we have become through baptism. Every child, youth, or adult, that it baptized into the body of Christ has been lifted out of the Nile of life into a new family. The people in the pews have truly become your brothers and sister in the faith through God’s powerful baptism. The Divine Irony is that we might feel we are called to save the people in church, when in fact they might be the ones called to save us. 

The story of Moses’ birth and childhood is beloved. It contains just enough power to elicit emotional responses from those of us lucky enough to know the narrative. It is a reminder of God’s grace and love through the powerful and the powerless. But above all it is a reminder that like a great and loving parent, Moses has been taken into the fold of God’s merciful love and grace. That we, through our baptisms and commitments to being disciples of Jesus Christ, have been brought out of the frightening waters of life into the adoptive love and care of God almighty. That we, though unsure of our future and plans, are known by the God of beginning and end.

Just as Jason and Ali held Alexander every evening, just as Pharaoh’s daughter cradled Moses in her arms, we have a God who loves us, who holds us close, and will never let us go. 

Amen.

 

Gabriel and Alexander in 2009

Gabriel and Alexander in 2009

Devotional – Romans 12.9

Devotional:

Romans 12.9

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;

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By 1743 the “Methodist” movement within the Church of England was taking off and growing considerably. John Wesley was suddenly responsible for checking in with the numerous societies he had helped to establish in order to continually encourage them in their faith and love. On one such occasion (in February of 1743) Wesley traveled to Newcastle to check on a particular society and was dismayed to discover a lax of discipline within the group.

Though harsh by our modern standards, Wesley examined every member of the society and found it necessary to expel 64 people from the group for the following offenses: “2 for cursing and swearing, 2 for habitual Sabbath-breaking, 17 for drunkenness, 2 for retailing spirituous liquors, 3 for quarreling and brawling, 1 for beating his wife, 3 for habitual and willful lying, 4 for railing and evil speaking, 1 for idleness and laziness, and 29 for lightness and carelessness” (Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists, 138). The offenses were so grave that Wesley believed it was detrimental for the whole if these offenders remained.

Within the week Wesley wrote what we now know as the General Rules. The terms of membership were simple: “a desire to flee the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.” But in order to continue in the society, members were required to live out their faith by, “First, By doing no harm, … Second, By doing good, … Thirdly, By attending all the ordinances of God.” (ibid.) These General Rules became foundational for the Methodist movement that eventually led to the creation of the contemporary United Methodist Church.

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Paul wrote to the church in Rome a similarly simple list about what it means to be in Christ: “let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” These principles of Christian discipleship are like the compass of our faith, guiding us to new and continual life in Christ. Wesley truly believed in renewing the Church of England by creating a standard by which the Christians could dedicate their lives. Faith, for him, was serious and worth working hard for. Today we are responsible for renewing our faith through discipleship and our commitment to love God and neighbor.

How do you live out your faith? Has following Jesus become boiled down to showing up for church once a week? Do you follow any guidelines or responsibilities for discipled-living on a daily basis?

Perhaps today we are all being called to a life of dedicated and disciplined faithfulness by simply letting our love be genuine, hating what is evil, and holding fast to what is good.

With Buttocks Uncovered – Sermon on Isaiah 20.1-6 & Mark 14.51-52

Isaiah 20.1-6

In the years that the commander-in-chief, who was sent by King Sargon of Assyria, came to Ashdod and fought against it and took it – at that time the Lord had spoken to Isaiah son of Amoz, saying, “Go, and loose the sackcloth from your loins and take your sandals off your feet,” and he had done so, walking naked and barefoot. Then the Lord said, “Just as my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot from three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Ethiopia, so shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptians as captives and the Ethiopians as exiles, both the young and the old, naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt. And they shall be dismayed and confounded because of Ethiopia their hope and of Egypt their boast. In that day the inhabitants of this coastland will say, ‘See, this is what happened to those in whom we hoped and to whom we fled for help and deliverance from the king of Assyria! And we, how shall we escape?’ “

Mark 14.51-52

And a certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.

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This morning we conclude our sermon series on Strange Stories from Scripture. As I have mentioned previously, this series came to fruition through a desire to proclaim some of the more bizarre texts in church, particularly those that are rarely discussed. There is a wealth of biblical treasure just waiting to be uncovered; this series is our attempt to begin unearthing some of the great moments from the Bible. Our first week we talked about a young man named Eutychus who fell asleep while Paul was preaching, last week we learned about the incident with Elisha and the she-bears, today we conclude by looking at the prophet Isaiah’s naked faith.

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The Lord spoke to Isaiah son of Amoz, saying, “Go, and loose the sackcloth from your loins and take your sandals off your feet, “ and he had done so, walking naked and barefoot.

On the outside it looks like your typical chapel: painted white with a perfectly trimmed and manicured lawn. When Sunday morning comes the parishioners lazily make their way to the pews in order to prepare their hearts and minds for worship. Located in Ivor, Virginia worship attendance has steadily increased over the last few years as the church has taken very seriously its commitment to “come as you are.” No judgments are made as people enter the sanctuary, they see one another as God’s children, and the community has benefited from this focused ministry.

Whitetail Chapel rests as an example for other churches. They continue to serve the Lord their God with all their hearts, minds, and souls, while other churches are just trying to figure out how to stay open. The people who attend the church are excited and jazzed up about their faith, and are known for their willingness to invite anyone they meet to attend.

If any of you were privileged enough to attend one Sunday I believe that it would be a tremendous experience. The preaching would open your hearts to God’s kingdom in the world, the fellowship with other parishioners would cement your importance and vitality to the body of Christ, and you would have a new vision of what the church can be.

However, even with all these accolades, I am positive that the one thing you would remember most about attending Whitetail Chapel is the fact that they worship in the nude…

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Those in attendance in worship do not have to worry about finding something special to wear on Sunday mornings because they strut their stuff in their birthday suits. “Come as you are,” indeed. When asked about why they choose to worship in the nude, the pastor replied, “Some of Jesus’ most important moments happened when he was naked: he was born naked, he died naked, and when he arose he lefts his clothes in the tomb so that he could be naked. If God made us that way, how can that be wrong?”

Some churches take the ministry of the prophet Isaiah a little too seriously.

During a time of revolt, when the people began to act our against the imperial ruling of Assyria, the prophet Isaiah was called to do something very dramatic. Ashdod, a city of strength, began the internal campaign against Assyria and urged for support from the surrounding nations including Judah with the promise that Egyptian and Ethiopian forces would soon come to help. As is common throughout scripture, and even in our lives today, the will and desire of the people did not match up with the ways of the Lord.

The Lord spoke to the prophet Isaiah, “Go, and loose the sackcloth from your loins and take your sandals off your feet,” and he did so, and began to walk around naked and barefoot. For three years Isaiah rid himself of the clothing and footwear that he had grown accustomed to and continued to embody, nakedly, the calling of the Lord.

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Then the Lord said, “Just as my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Ethiopia, so shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptians as captives and the Ethiopians as exiles, both the young and the old, naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered. And when that day comes to pass the inhabitants of the land will say, ‘See, this is what happened to those in whom we hoped and to whom we fled for help and deliverance from the king of Assyria! And we, how shall we escape?’”

During the timespan of the revolt, Isaiah walked around naked to symbolize the captivity that would soon overtake Egypt and Ethiopia, thus warning his people not to trust these allies nor join in the rebellion.

I know we’ve talked about some strange stories recently: A young man falls asleep under the warm glow of lanterns during a late night church service, only to fall out a window, die, and then be brought back to life. A young bald prophet overreacts to a group of young hoodlums and curses them in the name of the Lord to which 2 females bears maul 42 of the young men from the crowd. But today’s reading takes the cake for one of the strangest examples of faith in the bible.

From our modern sensibilities we find it difficult to imagine and believe that a prophet of the Lord, particularly one like Isaiah, would ever do something such as this. Certainly today, no members of the contemporary church would expose themselves to such embarrassing tactics.

This week, in preparation for the sermon, I asked a simple question of the Christians in my life: What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done for your faith? At first I heard nothing, a fearful sign that perhaps we are not pushing the boundaries for our faith, but eventually some people began to respond. One woman on twitter said, “I took a sabbatical, packed up all my “stuff,” became homeless, and traveled the world for a year following Jesus daily. My mother answered with, “I received Ecoli poisoning while on a mission trip to Guatemala.” And still yet another man said that he had to spend two and a half years in prison before figuring out that God loved him, and had a plan for him.

The craziest thing I have ever done for my faith was carry our confirmation cross over my shoulder throughout Staunton on Good Friday. I arrived at the church around noon, picked up our cross, and began walking. For 3 hours I explored our town by foot with the hope of marking our hallowed day and reminding those in Staunton what Christ did for us. I will freely admit that part of my desire was to upset people, to disrupt the common expectations of a normal Friday afternoon, and to challenge the vision of the church simply being a place where you gather for one hour every week.

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However, I will also admit that I was being selfish while carrying the cross around Staunton. I know that I felt led and called to do so by God, but I recognize that it was something I had been thinking about for a long time, and looking forward to for a number of years. Some small part of me desired that people would recognize that I was the one carrying the cross.

Notice however that the prophet Isaiah had a complete lack of self-consciousness. He was a man with a mission and did not hesitate to accept scorn or derision in following his duty. When the Lord called upon Isaiah to do something bizarre and strange, he did not wait for awhile and weigh the pros and cons of his calling. He did not wait to see if any other opportunities came knocking at his door. He did not fret over what his reputation would look like after his prophetically naked embodiment. Instead, he immediately stripped off his clothing and began to do what the Lord required.

The counter to our story this morning takes place at the end of the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus has already been arrested and is being brought to Pilate for questioning, the disciples have all fled for their own safety, when the captors discover a young man who was following them. Wearing nothing but a linen cloth the young man continued to follow Christ even after his closest friends had abandoned him, but when the guards caught hold of him, he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.

The young man was sharing in the experience of Jesus. Even when the disciples had left, the young man remained. Yet when the calling got too dangerous, he was ready to run off completely naked. It seems to make sense for the young man and the disciples to flee in order to preserve their own lives, but the followers of Christ are called to lose life for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel.

The nude dude from Mark’s gospel is naked and afraid. Isaiah, in stark contrast, is naked and prophetic. Rather than run away from the situation, instead of merely looking out for his life alone, Isaiah was willing to go to extreme measures in order to warn God’s people against putting too much faith in the other nations, rather than the almighty God.

Even with this dramatic and captivating imagery from the life of Isaiah, I believe we can ask about Isaiah’s effectiveness. Remember: we’re talking about a man who walked around naked and barefoot for three years. Isaiah, to all the people, must have appeared crazy and deranged. He must’ve looked like one of those people we are often tempted to ignore in our lives, people who are so zealous and outspoken to the degree that we can pretend they do not exist. But he did what the Lord required.

Even with all the dramatic and captivating elements of our worship service, I believe we can ask about the church’s effectiveness. I am comfortably standing behind a protective barrier surrounded by people who chose to be here this morning. In worship we are caught up and part of the body of Christ who willingly woke up this morning, who decided to come to church, and who yearned to hear God’s Word spoken.

Isaiah’s ministry confronted the fundamental elements of peoples’ lives, he shook everything up with his prophetic vision, and left them with something they would never forget.

Proclaiming the Word of the Lord is not something that can be left up to church worship and preachers alone. This space is sacred for us to gather and be reinvigorated for living out our faith until next Sunday. True transformative ministry takes place out there.

Isaiah’s actions, his willingness to remain naked and barefoot for three years to protect God’s people, ought to shame us into wanting to do more and live out our faith in strong and incredible ways. If we are passionate for Christ to be known, for the kingdom of God to reign, then we must ask how far we are willing to go for our faith.

Not let me be very, very, very clear: I am not saying that we need to loose the sackcloth from our loins and take the sandals off our feet. I am not saying that we need to roam around the hills of Staunton naked and barefoot for the next three years. That was Isaiah’s calling, not ours.

But if Isaiah was willing to go that far for his Lord, how far are we willing to go? Perhaps this morning we are being poked and prodded to be naked with our faith, to be vulnerable with those around us about what the Lord has done for and through us.

What would it look like this week if you asked one person if you could tell them about your faith? Who would you share your faith with? I’m not talking about trying to save someone, or trying to tell them the whole story of both the Old and New Testaments. But what if you sat down and told them what God has down for your life?

I know that for some of us to share our faith in that way would be very uncomfortable. We might rather walk around naked and barefoot for three years than sit down and be vulnerable and open about how God has changed us. 

But if God could save his people from making a terrible alliance through Isaiah, if God could save us from death through Christ on the cross, just imagine what God can do through you.

Amen.

Devotional – Romans 12.2

Devotional:

Romans 12.2

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

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“Taylor,” he began, “I have been attending worship at United Methodists churches nearly every Sunday since I was a child and I have never heard anyone preach on the texts you chose this month.” We were sitting in the church social hall after worship yesterday afternoon when a member of our church made it known that he was still learning something new and church and growing in his discipleship. Georgeanna Driver, one of our members who passed away last week, made a similar comment two weeks ago about not knowing that story (Elisha and the she-bears) was even in the bible. It has been exciting and thrilling over the last three weeks to challenge peoples’ perspective on what the Word of the Lord can still speak into our lives today, even stories we might otherwise choose to ignore.

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When I was at Duke for seminary our Dean, Dr. Richard Hays, reminded us that the responsibility of the Christian is to be constantly transformed by the renewing of our minds. Etched in the marble archway leading into the chapel, Romans 12.2 is a relevant reminder for students of God’s Word but even more so for the people who have been called to follow Christ. In today’s world/society it is too easy to remain complacent with our understanding of faith and overreact when a new person/idea challenges our faith. In stark contrast Jesus was regularly pushing his disciples into new territory with understandings about the kingdom of God.

What we do as Christians is primarily about God, and only secondarily about us. We gather on Sunday’s to hear the Word of the Lord and then live it out in the world. Worship is that time that helps in the transformation and renewal of our minds so that we may discern God’s will for our lives, rather than be conformed to the ways of the world.

Outside of worship we can be transformed through the reading of scripture. Try opening your Bible to a book or a chapter you’ve never read (or haven’t read in a long time), read a set number of verses, and then pray over them. Ask yourself: what might God be saying to me through these words today?

The Word of God is alive and speaking anew everyday, we need only the faith to hear it and live it out.

Hairs, Prayers, and Bears (Oh My!) – Sermon on 2 Kings 2.23-25

Strange Stories from Scripture Part 2

2 Kings 2.23-25

He went up from there to Bethel; and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!” When he turned around and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and then returned to Samaria.

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This morning we continue with the second part of our sermon series on Strange Stories from Scripture. As I mentioned last week, the drive for our sermon series comes from the wealth of scriptural treasure begging to be preached, in addition to my desire to not fall into a rut of preaching the same, favorite, and familiar texts over and over. Last week we talked about the fate of a young man named Eutychus who fell asleep during church. Today we are exploring the story of Elisha and the she-bears.

 

And while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!”

In my opinion, this is one of the most troubling passages in all of scripture. I can look into both the Old and New Testaments and find scriptures that challenge my faith, passages that require me to pray for understanding and discernment, there are even passages that I would rather ignore than affirm from a place such as this, but there are few stories as dramatic and frightening as the one we have read this morning.

While Elisha was on his way to Bethel, sweating under the heat of the sun, some young boys came out from the city ahead of him and began to make fun of him. “Get outta here baldy! We don’t want you and your shiny head around us!” Perhaps he tried to ignore them at first, but when the taunting became so distracting and loud, Elisha turned around to face the crowd of young boys and cursed them in the name of the Lord. As if on cue, two mama bears came barreling out of the woods and mauled 42 of the boys. From there Elisha continued on his journey to Mount Carmel, and then he returned to Samaria.

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Before we can even begin to address what happened on the road we need to go back, we need to get a larger picture of the story.

Elisha followed the reign of the prophet Elijah. Elijah is remembered for bringing a widow’s son back to life, for finding God in the sheer silence, and for confronting idol worshippers. Elijah was a favorite prophet for the New Testament writers who often drew the connection between the prophetic life of Elijah and the messianic life of Christ.

At the end of Elijah’s time Elisha followed him to the Jordan and watched him ascend on a whirlwind into heaven after having received a share of Elijah’s spirit. Elisha took up Elijah’s ministry, he literally took Elijah’s mantle with him, and continued to be a messenger and example of God’s Word for the people.

The story of Elisha and the she bears is one of the first things that took place during Elisha’s time as a prophet. As a young and novice messenger, he is making his way to Bethel and other parts of the land to bring the people back to their Lord.

What do you make of this passage? Is it one that you, like me, would rather ignore and pass over? Does it challenge your understanding of God and the role of the prophets? 

For centuries theologians, scholars, pastors, and Christian-disciples have attempted to make sense of this story; they have worked hard to explain what is really going on.

I could begin by telling you that there is more at work in this story than appears on the surface. In Hebrew, the designation for the “small boys” is more akin to “young men” and more particularly young men who do not want the prophet coming to their town to tell them what they have done wrong.

I could continue by showing you that, though Elisha was bald, he was in fact probably only 25 or 26 when this transpired; he was my age when he was taunted for being bald and cursed the young men!

Similarly the point can be made that the harmless teasing was in fact very troubling. They were not merely making fun of his shiny head but were denying his prophetic ability. After taking up his former prophet’s mantle, Elisha was being accosted; in so doing the crowd of young men was not only attacking a young prophet but denouncing the Lord as well.

Moreover I could share with you the simple fact that Elisha did not call out the she bears, he just pronounced judgment on the demonstrators and God decided the form of response. And even when the bears came out of the woods they did not kill 42 of the young men, they simply mauled them. Perhaps God was using the bears in a way that none of the young men would perish, but so that they would all be punished.

Yet, even with all these new details, the story still troubles me.

As I prepared for the sermon this week I consulted numerous commentaries on 2 Kings and I was shocked to discover some of the reflections regarding this passage.

One commentary claimed that Elisha was not the kind of man to summon bears from the woods. The “irreverence, lawlessness, and hoodlumism of youth are sure to result in moral disaster.” The bears function as symbols of the punishment that overtakes vicious behavior. It went on to state that the boys in the story are the prototype for thousands of youth today. Only if they are educated at home, in school, and in church will they be able to avoid the punishment of the Lord that will surely come in one form or another. (The Interpreters Bible, vol. 3)

Another commentary made the same point, but in a shorter and more direct way: Rich and poor, high and low, young and old, ALL must be punished for their transgressions… (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 12)

I went on to consult numerous sermons on the passage and was frightened to discover that most of them, few that they are, articulate a theology that the kids got what they deserved. They might have all ended by saying, “our children, your children, will wind up like those boys because we have failed to train them as polite young people. We need to bring our children to church, and encourage them to bring their friends, so that we can shape their future to avoid the bears of God’s wrath.”

Breathe.

I am now going to do what many of my professors warned me about in seminary, I am going to preach against this text.

Whereas many scholars, pastors, and Christians believe that the children are at fault, (I agree, they are) I believe that Elisha is just as at fault for his quick curse of the bullying boys.

In 2007 Duke University did a study and found that 85% of seminary graduates leave the ministry within five years and 90% flee before retirement. Many of these pastors that run away from the ministry never return to church. (Read more here: Keeping Your Pastor)

With the rise in expectations of pastoral ministry, coupled with dying churches and lowered pay, its no wonder that many pastors abandon their flock. When many churches are running on financial fumes, while also expecting their pastors to continually go above and beyond their call, the result is a collection of pastors who are burned out and have lost sight of the Lord and their calling.

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I imagine the Elisha felt a lot like ministers in the first few years of their appointments. After all, Elisha found himself following in the steps of the renown and powerful prophet Elijah who no doubt cast a great shadow for the young prophet. Most of the people would be evaluating this young man based on the actions of his predecessors.

This wasn’t something that Elisha inherited but was called into. He could have remained a farmer, tending to the plows with the oxen, but instead he was called out of his life into something new, strange, and at times, terrible.

As a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed prophet, Elisha had everything to prove. And here in 2 Kings 2 Elisha find himself at the beginning of his ministry filled with passion for the Lord when a crowd of youngsters attack him for that very call.

I think that Elisha’s pride got the better of him when he was walking to Bethel. Unlike the Son of Man who would one day tell his disciples to turn the other cheek and love those who persecute you, Elisha immediately cursed the youngsters and they were mauled.

If this story is about what it means to be a prophet who speaks the Word of the Lord, then I would argue that the biggest take away is that we must be very careful with our prayers. God listens to our prayers and He answers them, sometimes in ways that we do not want and sometimes in ways that we do not expect. Be careful what you pray for.

When I arrived at this church I felt very much like what I imagine Elisha felt like at the beginning of his prophetic ministry. I was following in the footsteps of countless pastors who have shaped and nurtured this congregation into what it is today. I recognize that I will always live in the shadow of the likes of Fletcher Swink, Zig Volskis, and Patricia Meadows.

I sat in my office the week before my first sermon and thought about everything I had to live up to. I stewed over what my reputation would be at this place. I over-analyzed every word and sentence for that sermon, fearing how I might be received. 

I stood in this pulpit over a year ago, afraid of how all of you would respond. And, if I’m being honest, I stand here this morning still consumed by thoughts of what you think about these words, my delivery, and the connections with scripture.

Being a pastor is, at times, terrifying. Many weeks pass when I feel like I did not get enough done. There have been a number of Saturday nights that I lay awake in bed rehearsing in my head what I will be saying on Sunday. I have had many tough conversations with families, couples, and individuals about the sins in their lives. There have been countless visits when I wonder if I have actually helped at all.

And its when I reflect on all of these elements of ministry, that I realize how difficult it must have been to be Elisha. I begin to understand why he was so quick to curse those young men who spoke against his calling.

And the more I think about it, the more I see connections not only between Elisha and pastors, but also between Elisha and all of us.

How quick are we to curse those who speak against us? How inclined are we to forget our discipleship the minute our calling is called into question?

I know of an older gentleman who had not exchanged a word with one of his sons in years because of a foolish argument they had in the past. I know a woman who refuses to shop at certain stores in our town because of the color of some of the employees. I know neighbors that never wave or acknowledge one another because one of them went to Virginia Tech and the other went to UVA.

In today’s world it is too easy to put a tremendous amount of pressure on ourselves to shine brightly in the darkness. We set goals for ourselves that are lofty and unreachable. We expect greatness from our lives and the lives around us on a daily basis.

When we get caught up in the expectations of the world that we place on ourselves, we fall into the trap of quickly cursing others around us. When we fail, we jump to blame someone else. When we miss the mark we can come up with a list of excuses faster than we can come up with better solutions.

Being a pastor is hard, but being a disciple is harder. We are called to walk in the world as prophets, seeing this created place through God’s eyes. We have the unenviable task of reaching out to the last and the least and the lost. We have been baptized into a new order where the world has been turned upside down.

When we are accosted for out faith, when we are judged for our Christian allegiance, it will manifest itself in different forms. 

Elisha was made fun of for being bald.

You might be attacked for praying in public, for wearing a cross around your neck. You might be made fun of for offering up your gifts and tithes to a place like the church. You might be judged for praying to a God who often responds in silence.

But nevertheless, we are not called to respond to these threats by cursing on enemies. We have been commanded to love them.

What a crazy and wonderful thing it is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 133.1

Devotional:

Psalm 133.1

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!

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I prayed all week for the weather to cooperate. We had been planning the Community Cook-Out for weeks and the weather forecast kept pointing toward tremendous amounts of rain to fall during the scheduled event. As a church we had already procured a considerable amount of food, dedicated volunteers, and three bouncy houses. Yet, as the days passed and we came closer to the celebration, I became worried that it would not take place at all.

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After many prayers, Saturday came and the weather wound up being perfect for the Cook-Out! The clouds provided a cool atmosphere for the children to play on the bouncy houses and allowed for us to celebrate on the lawn without having to worry about too much sunshine or rain. When people began to arrive for the event I prayed and thanked God for providing such a wonderful day for our community and was thrilled for our church to serve the folk of our neighborhood.

I spent most of the afternoon grilling more hamburgers and hot-dogs than I could possibly count. Every time I thought I could take a break, more people arrived and lined up for food! From my vantage point I was given a clear line of sight of everyone and all of the activities that were taking place: children (and adults) playing on the bouncy houses, families sitting at tables while enjoying food and fellowship, young people lining up to have their faces painted, frisbees and footballs being thrown through the air, and conversations taking place between people who had never met. While standing behind the grill I was overcome with a sense of wonder at how our church was living out its call to participate in God’s kingdom by being the body of Christ for the world.

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The psalmist wrote “how very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” During our Cook-Out we had different people from all over the community present to join together in fellowship: parents and families from the pre-school, neighbors who attend different church, friends who do not attend church at all, and people from St. John’s. As we enjoyed the afternoon together I was given a glimpse of how wonderful and joyous it can be when a neighborhood lives in unity; I experienced Christ’s presence through the conversations and outpouring of love between strangers.

This week let us all seek opportunities to live together in unity. Let us look for those around us who are still strangers and do whatever we can to foster new friendships.

How can you live out Psalm 133 this week?

Strange Stories from Scripture: Bored To Death (Almost) – Sermon on Acts 20.7-12

Acts 20.7-12

On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion with them; since he intended to leave the next day, he continued speaking until midnight. There were many lamps in the room upstairs where we were meeting. A young man named Eutychus, who was sitting in the window, began to sink off into a deep sleep while Paul talked still longer. Overcome by sleep, he fell to the ground three floors below and was picked up dead. But Paul went down, and bending over him took him in his arms, and said, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.” Then Paul went upstairs, and after he had broken bread and eaten, he continued to converse with them until dawn; then he left. Meanwhile they had taken the boy away alive and were not a little comforted.

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This morning marks the beginning of our three part sermon series on Strange Stories from Scripture. Part of our series was born out of the immense treasure that is begging to be discovered from God’s Word in addition to the fact that it is too easy to fall into a rut with preaching the same and familiar texts over and over. Today we are talking about the fate of a young man who was bored to death (almost).

 

A young man named Eutychus, who was sitting in the window, began to sink off into a deep sleep while Paul talked longer. Overcome by sleep, he fell to the ground three floors below and was picked up dead.

When I have the opportunity to attend different church services, a very rare occurrence since becoming a pastor, I usually sit toward the front on the right hand side. I am of the persuasion that sitting toward the front helps the worshipper with their ability to participate fully in the service. Yet, I know that others have very different opinions on where they should sit for worship.

When I was in North Carolina, I worshipped for a long time at Duke Memorial United Methodist Church. I, like many of you, sat in nearly the exact same spot every Sunday. I grew accustomed to seeing the same heads in front of me, and the voices surrounding me during the hymns, to the degree that where I sat played a pivotal role in my worship experience. 

One Sunday morning I was surprised to discover a Duke undergraduate student sitting in my spot. I can vividly recall the wave of emotions I felt seeing someone encroaching on my sanctuary territory, but I eventually gave in and sat down next to the young man. He had all the markings of a polite and proper gentleman: his outfit had been perfectly ironed, not a wrinkle in sight, his hair was parted to the side, and he sat with precise posture. I attempted to introduce myself before the service started by I was interrupted by the beginning notes of the organ prelude.

As we made our way through the service, offering up our prayers to God, singing hymns, and reading scripture I took little notice of the young man to my left and genuinely enjoyed our morning service. However, about midway through the sermon I began to notice a sudden change in my neighbor’s disposition. Out of the corner of my eye I witnessed him participating in the age old “my-head-keeps-drooping-down-while-I’m-trying-to-stay-awake.

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While our pastor weaved through the beauties of scripture, this young man was doing everything he could think of to stay awake: he scratched his eyes, stretched his back, and even slapped his own cheek. However, nothing was helping. His head would continue to fall down only to be slingshotted back into position every minute or so.

At this point I was so distracted by the young man that I became worried for him. What if the pastor notices him sleeping and calls him out during the sermon? What if he begins to snore and everyone starts to look at us? What if he actually fell asleep and his head crashed on the pew in front of us? So I did what any good Christian would do…

Hey bud,” I whispered while tapping on his shoulder. He quickly woke up and abruptly turned to stare at me. “If you put your hands like this (hands in the form of prayer) you can rest your head between them on the pew in front of us, you can catch some Zs and everyone will think you’re praying. If you start to snore I’ll nudge you.” With a smile he slapped me on the back and declared, a little too loudly, “thanks Bro!” and promptly fell back asleep.

Falling asleep in church can have dire consequences. What happened to Eutychus that night should be a fair warning for us about what happens when we fall asleep. Paul had come into town and would be leaving the next day. This night time gathering was the last and best opportunity for him to share the Word of the Lord with the people. It happened on the first day of the week, Sunday, when the people joined together to break bread.

This is the first reference to breaking bread as a community since the day of Pentecost in Acts 2; the budding Christian community has begun to sustain one another through the presence of God as experienced through the bread and the cup.

Paul had limited time to discuss the Good News with the church so he continued to speak until midnight. There were many lamps in the room upstairs helping to illuminate the space as Paul conveyed the depth and wonder of God with the people. A young man named Eutychus, which means “lucky,” was sitting in the window while Paul preached from the front of the room. Before too long his eyes began to feel heavy, the warmth of the lamps inviting him to rest his eyes, when he sank into a deep sleep as Paul continued to speak.

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Eutychus fell three stories from the window and was picked up dead. Paul immediately went down, bent over the young man and took him into his arms and said, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.” And then Paul went back to the room upstairs and after breaking bread with his brothers and sisters, he continued to speak with them until dawn. Meanwhile the people had taken the boy away alive and were greatly comforted.

Oftentimes when we talk about the church during the time of Acts, and when we talk about our responsibility to be the church for the world, we compartmentalize the message of faith to going out of our comfort zones, opening our doors, and appealing to unbelievers. Yet this story is a sobering reminder that Christians are called to persevere through many trials, requiring the task of worship to comfort weary travelers on the journey of faith. Paul takes the time to gather with God’s people, break bread, proclaim the Word, and encourage them in faith.

Preaching is that opportunity to teach and enable disciples to discern between true and false gospels, authentic tradition, and how God’s Word continues to speak living and life-giving words into our lives today.

Even if we have the most wonderful and dedicated lives of service, we are weak without the revealed Word of God resonating deep into our souls. Watered-down, inarticulate and unexamined beliefs lead to weak disciples.

What do you want from a sermon?

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Do you want to be affirmed in your faith? Listen to words about scripture that leave you patting your back for having done a good job? Do you want to be challenged to live a better life through the proclamation of a sermon? What is it that you hope for from someone like me when I stand in the pulpit. Do you want to be kept awake? Do you want something to think about until next Sunday?

Preaching at its finest is, as Paul understood it, that remarkable time when God’s Word becomes incarnate again in our lives. We take the time to sit and listen to the incredible ways that God’s speech speaks something new and fresh in our lives. Preaching is about encouragement, challenge, love, hope, faith, recollection, and dedication. On that evening in Troas the preacher for the day went on a bit too long and it resulted in a young man falling to his apparent death from a window. What can I do to keep you awake to the faith that God has in you?

What do you want to discover in the breaking of bread?

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Paul was with the gathered church to proclaim the Word and break bread. When we gather together on the first Sunday of the month for communion, what do you want to find? Do you want to walk up to the front feeling unworthy of the gift with your head hung low? Are you hopeful for a feeling of complete joy as you dip the bread into the cup to partake in this heavenly meal?

Communion is that remarkable time when the divine and human come into contact. We come to the table to feast on Christ’s body and blood remembering what Christ did for us and for his disciples that last incredible evening. We partake of this spiritual food that sustains us for our journeys of faith. We break bread and in so doing we join together with all the saints that came before us and will follow after us.

Why do you come to church?

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This perhaps is the most important question for us to answer as a worshipping community. Why do we get together to do this week after week? Are we here to check up on old friends, hoping to hear about all the new and wonderful things going on in the community? Do we do church because it is what our parents did and they taught us to do the same thing?

When we hear words proclaimed in this place, when we break bread and gather at the table, God is made known to us. Much like the time when Jesus walked on the road to Emmaus with his disciples, they did not know that he was with them. It was only after he interpreted the scriptures and broke bread with them that their eyes were opened to his presence among them. We gather as Christ’s body to proclaim his Word and feast at his table so that God might become known among us. 

The church today has found itself in a strange place. Unlike the past when preachers and pastors had to worry about maintaining perfect, articulate, and sound theology (fearful of sounding heretic), today one of the greatest challenges facing the church is the ethos of boredom.   Instead of being caught up in the fear of making someone upset or angry because of something in a sermon, the contemporary church faces the incredible task on fighting against boredom, and in particular, being bored to death, at least spiritually.

In the last few weeks I have had a number of Christians from other churches in our community come to meet with me in order to vent their complaints about other pastors. “He doesn’t preach from the Bible!” “She moves too much when she preaches!” “His sermons no longer mean anything to me!” When doing church becomes boring we risk losing people, not just the young, to the temptation of falling asleep to the incredible glories of God.

If we come to church expecting it to be more like a funeral, a boring drab of an excuse to remember and anticipate God’s acts in the world, then it will remain as such. But that crazy night so long ago when Paul went on preaching until the late hours of the night, the gathered people might’ve expected their worship to turn into a funeral, yet Paul confidently broke bread, ate, continued to proclaim, and the boy was presented as alive.

The words and acts of the discipled life rehabilitates the church and the community. It brings us back to life, and transforms us from a fearful little group of people who keep our faith to ourselves to a incredible group of prophets who are able to confront the world’s ways and declare the words that Paul shouted, “there is life!”

There is life in our worship! We have encountered the living God who breathes and moves through us. We sing the hymns of our faith with resounding voices to declare the ways of God. We pray the words of our hopes, our joys, and our concerns by lifting them up to the Lord. We are called to feast at the table like all the apostles and disciples before us to be filled with the grace of God.

Is church boring you to death, or is it offering you life?

Amen.