We Get The Politicians We Deserve

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Adam Baker about the readings for the 3rd Sunday After Pentecost (1 Samuel 8.4-20, Psalm 138, 2 Corinthians 4.13-5.1, Mark 3.20-35). Adam serves as the associate pastor at Wesley Memorial UMC in Wilmington, North Carolina. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the band Against Me!, insecurities, bowing down to the Lord, imperatives for grace, quotes from Galaxy Quest, daily renewal, and the necessity of imagination. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: We Get The Politicians We Deserve

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The Not Top 10

Exodus 20.1-17

Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven alone, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son of your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it. Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Lent is a season of repentance and introspection. However, that doesn’t mean the liturgical season encourages navel-gazing – in fact it compels us to look at our lives individually and corporately. Lent almost forces us to ask, “How have I failed, and how have we failed?”

It is not an easy season in the life of the church.

In preparing for this Lent I was struck by the theme of covenants – both biblical and otherwise, and what they have to do with our faithfulness. Almost everyone here is familiar with what a covenant is, we’ve borrowed money, or rented an apartment, or purchased a car, all under the auspices of a contract. They exist because of a fundamental distrust that we have for one another and institutions, we use them to protect ourselves should the other not hold up their end of the bargain.

Yet the truest and deepest relationships are those built on trust – when we lovingly yield ourselves to the other with vulnerability and fragility. And that is precisely what God has offered us in the covenant – the vulnerability required for true trust.

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Confession time: I am prejudiced against Sunday School.

I can’t help it really – while growing up in the church, I had far more love for what we did in a room like this, than what happened in the Sunday School rooms. Participating in Sunday School required waking up earlier than usual, it forced us to rush through the typical morning rhythm, and then we’d be deposited in classrooms in which there were old smelly couches, fading biblical posters, and an assortment of discarded bibles.

Bless the teachers’ hearts: they tried to teach us about the bible… but it never really stuck. I can remember a lesson about David and Goliath, but all we talked about was how buff David looked in the pictures and we wondered aloud how long it would take us to look similarly.

I can remember learning about Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac, and even though I now know that God provided a ram instead, at the time I was terrified of God and didn’t want to go back to church for a few weeks.

I can even remember learning about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, but the story fell a little flat when our teacher kept referring to her as a “lady of the night” which made Mary sound more like a vampire than whatever a lady of the night is.

Beyond the lack of theological depth, the thing that really drove me crazy about Sunday School was the fact that it felt way too much like regular school. We had a teacher, who took our attendance, assigned us particular seats, gave out homework, and even presided over pop-quizzes. And I understand that theological education is important, I went to seminary after all, but the way it was done for me resulted in my studying not to hear what God had to say, but for the promise of receiving a piece of candy if, for instance, I could find the book of Isaiah before anyone else in the room.

I could fill this entire sermon with Sunday School anecdotes, but the one event I remember most vividly was the day we were quizzed on the Ten Commandments. I knew they were a thing, I was pretty sure we had an embroidered version of them hung on the wall outside the sanctuary, but I had no idea what they were.

I sat there at the table with my blank piece of paper and I stared off into the distance for a long time. What does God command us to do? I probably wrote something about loving God, and loving neighbor. I might’ve even suggested that we’re supposed give our money to God. But when the time of our quiz came to an end I turned in my poor excuse of a quiz, and I failed.

There would be no piece of candy for tween-age Taylor that day.

Do you know all of the Ten Commandments, in order? If I gave each of you a piece of paper for a quiz, would you receive your piece of candy? How many of us have memorized God’s top 10?

When I was living in Durham, NC there was a period of time when people started placing the Ten Commandments on lawn-signs in their front yards for everyone else to see. I’d be riding my bike to class, and house after house, rather than wanting me to know who they would be voting for in the next election, wanted me to know that I’m not supposed to break the Sabbath, or worship any other god, or kill anyone.

It was around that same time, as it comes up again and again, that a sizable portion of the population began advocating for the appearance of the Ten Commandments in public buildings, like schoolhouses and local courthouses.

And I couldn’t help but think that God was using the surging publicity of the Ten Commandments to make up for my failure in Sunday School.

            Somehow or another, God was going to drill these commandments into my brain!

            But then I began wondering, was this God’s work, or was it ours?

Or, to put it another way: Were the commandments being used to provide freedom, or as a weapon?

Then God spoke all these words… Through a covenant, a promise to be our God, God delivers us, sustains us, heals us, and watches over us. God only asks that we follow ten simple rules. And we can’t do it.

Every single one of us in this room has broken a commandment (some of us more than others!) And yet, our failure to hold up our end of the agreement does not affect God’s commitment. It is in knowing that we fail, God loves us.

God is the one who establishes the covenant with us, not the other way around. No response, no bargaining on our part, was required. God binds God’s self to us knowing full and well how we will respond.

And the way we talk about the commandments, the way we quiz children, or place them in our yards, or desire them in our courthouses, makes a mockery of the gift that they are.

We make them more about us, than about God.

The Ten Commandments express the purposeful will of God for God’s people. In our limited imaginations we’ve made them out to be a list of what we can and cannot do. We’ve used them like a bludgeon against those who do not follow them.

But at the heart of the commandments, at the heart of God’s covenant with us, is the freedom to love God and one another.

Of course, there is a freedom to ignore the covenants, something we do all the time. All those signs in people’s yards, they were all facing away from those who lived in the houses. It was as if they wanted others to follow what they themselves had forgotten. Quizzing children on what the commandments say is a far stretch from helping them to be implemented. Displaying them in courthouses will not make people follow them any more than a speed limit sign will on a highway.

It’s incredibly ironic that many people want the Ten Commandments up in public in a country where divorce is over 50% (you shall not commit adultery), where we have more guns than human beings (you shall not kill), where capitalism is more important than community (honor the Sabbath), and where we spend more time worshipping celebrities than Almighty God (you shall have no other gods before me).

Public displays of religious affection in the form of the Ten Commandments will not change or transform this world.

But binding ourselves to them, holding each other accountable to these strange and life-giving realities, is the seed that results in a new garden of life. If we ignore them, we do so at our own peril, not because God is waiting with a whip to punish us, but because the teachings establish a way of being.

Living outside the commandments results in a life of isolation, individiualism, and apathy.

            But living in the commandments, writing them on our hearts rather than our walls, is the beginning of a trust that transforms everything else.

We might say, “What’s the harm in a little coveting?” Our entire advertising economy is based on the principles of jealousy and envy after all. Or we might wonder about what’s so wrong with working extra hours on a Saturday morning… Our entire culture produces a narrative in which over production is an expectation.

It is in the prohibition of such things that God challenges our understanding of reality. We can give our lives over to our own commandments, but our lives will be a shallow shadow of what they could be. Living in the Ten Commandments sets us forth on a path that allows us to fully love God and one another. It is the way we become who God is calling us to be.

The Ten Commandments are God’s Top 10 rules for faithful living and, sadly, they have become a Not Top 10 list for us.

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We regularly worship other gods, like the god of wealth or political power. We build up false idols in material objects. We do things in the name of the Lord that harm and destroy others. We break the commitment to rest. We reject and rebel against our parents. We live in a world fueled by war and violence. We are captivated by a highly sexualized culture that tempts us toward adultery. We steal from those without power. We lie constantly. And we believe the commercials that tell us life will be better if we just had what the person on the screen has.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can rediscover this Not Top 10 list for the freedom that it provides. We can bind ourselves to it, and in so doing the shackles of death will fall away. We can remember that its not a list to be memorized, or a weapon to be used, but a way of life that leads to life.

We can love God with our whole hearts, we can trust in our allegiance to the Lord, we can ask to be used by God rather than the other way around, we can find true rest, we can love our parents both biological and spiritual, we can see all people as having sacred worth, we can live into the promises we make in marriage, we can give to those in need, we can tell the truth in love, we can believe that we already have enough.

We can do all of this but God makes the impossible possible. God fills us and fuels us for lives bent not toward ourselves, but toward others. God sustains us when we are down in the valley, and uses the Spirit to push us back toward the mountaintop.

Displaying the Ten Commandments for other people to see will never bring us closer to God, but striving to live according to the them results in a profound freedom unlike anything else. Amen.

Do Pastors Fail?

Yep.

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I was recently invited to join the one and only Todd Littleton on the Patheological podcast to discuss the strange, and often avoided, subject of pastoral failure. Many of us are all too familiar with the failure made manifest in places of church leadership like adultery and embezzlement. Those I would categorize as moral failures. But there are other failures as well.

During our conversation Todd and I cover a number of the mistakes I’ve made over the last few years, and how I’ve grown from them. I fundamentally believe our mistakes make us better pastors/Christians AND that we need communities to help us see our failures and push us toward better solutions. Otherwise we pastors run the risk of falling into a frightening statistical category: 1,500 pastors leave the ministry every month in this country never to return again.

If you would like to listen to our conversation, you can do so here: Pastors Fail?

I highly suggest subscribing to Todd’s podcast – he strives to provide conversations for the pastor/theologian and it has been a tremendous help to me in the past.

Devotional – Psalm 126.3

Devotional:

Psalm 126.3

The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

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I was in the midst of wrapping up my sermon yesterday when my 19-month-old son decided to clasp his hands together over and over and shout “Amen!” as loud as he could for everyone to hear. While some thought it was precious and perhaps even faithful for him to do so, he only really knows that we say “amen” at the end of things. Which is to say, he was trying to get me to stop preaching!

I couldn’t help but laugh when I finally got to my “amen” at the end of the sermon as I looked over and saw a huge grin across his face as he was standing straight up in the pew next to his mother. And in that fleeting moment, I realized how remarkably blessed I am.

In the ordinary moment of doing what I do every week, I took in the scene in a way that I had not done so before.

Does that ever happen to you? Do you experience moments where you contemplate how wonderful your life really is, but you realize it’s outside the frame of reference for what should be considered a blissful moment? Sure, when we graduate from school, or say “I will” to our spouse at the altar, or welcome a child into the world, we should count ourselves blessed. But those strange mysterious moments of ordinary divine gratitude are helpful reminders in between the big life events.

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In just a few days, scores of people will be gathering with family members from far and near to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. There will be moments where individuals look at the scene before them (children tearing open gifts, a full family at the dinner table, wood crackling in the fireplace) and think the great things God has done for them.

But why do we only think those thoughts at special times during the year?

I had a very typical moment from the pulpit yesterday, but it struck a profound chord within me. I am blessed each and every day in ways that I don’t deserve. I encounter people and experiences for which I should be extremely grateful. And to be honest, I don’t thank God nearly enough for all that God has done for me.

It is my hope and prayer that during the remaining days of Advent, each of us can look for those wonderful ordinary moments that remind us of all the great things God has done for us.

We can keep singing about how this is the most wonderful time of year, but with God every single day is a tremendous blessing, a blessing for which we should rejoice.

Sinners In The Hands Of A Loving God

Isaiah 56.6-8

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant – these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.

 

“Jews will not replace us! Jews will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!”

So shouted the throngs of white people in Charlottesville last weekend. They carried tiki torches burning in the night, they marched in formation, and they shouted for all to hear what they really felt.

Their anti-Semitic slogan could have gone any number of ways. While carrying around Nazi flags and weapons of violence, while defending white superiority and aggression, they could’ve shouted “Blacks will not replace us!” or “Homosexuals will not replace us” or “The Handicapped will not replace us!”

All of those groups were targeted by the Nazi regime more than half-a-century ago for being “inferior” or a threat to their dominance. The angry and assailing white people in Charlottesville could have picked any number people to shout about, but they picked the Jews. They were there to protest the removal of a Confederate Civil War General’s statue, many of them claimed to be there to protect their white Christianity, and yet they announced for everyone to hear, “Jews will not replace us!”

White Supremacists March with Torches in Charlottesville

People reject other people for all sorts of reasons. White supremacists reject those who represent everything antithetical to their values. Hardline Democrats often reject neo-Conservative values (and vice-versa). Some even reject people for the sport team they root for.

But in the realm of the church, in Christianity, to reject Jews, or any other marginalized group, is simply unchristian. For in God’s vision of the holy mountain, Christians are the gentiles who are gathered to join the Jews. We are the outcasts, the foreigners, the outsiders grafted into God’s great communion. To reject the outcast is to reject ourselves.

There are a great number of Christian churches in the world today with a wide array of views and theologies. In the US, the number of Christian denominations increases every year while the number of actual Christians is falling. And though the church is so varied and different, there is one thing that might unite all churches: the desire to appear as welcoming and inclusive as possible.

All you need to do is check a church website or a bulletin and you can find descriptions of the church that all say something like: we are an open, friendly, inclusive, and welcoming congregation.

In our denomination, we say we have open hearts, open minds, open doors.

Inclusivity is quite the buzzword in the church these days. Rather than appearing at all judgmental, we want people to know that we accept all people. Rather than seeming prejudiced, we want everyone to know they are welcome. Rather than looking at people based on their outward appearance, we want the world to know that we care more about the content of one’s character.

But the truth is there are a great number of people who have been ignored, if not rejected, by congregations claiming to be inclusive. Including our own.

Much like the droves of people protesting in Charlottesville last weekend, we reject others for all sorts of reasons. Non-Christians often assume, thanks to the way the church is talked about in the greater world, that Christians are homophobic, or racist, or elitist, and now anti-Semitic. And you know what, some Christians are. And we should be ashamed for the horrible rhetoric of our past, we should repent for what we have done even if we weren’t there, because whenever the church has rejected “the other” we are forgetting the truth that we were once the rejected outsiders welcomed by God.

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There’s an old story that preachers love to tell about being inclusive and it goes like this: A church was in the middle of a worship service one Sunday morning, the preacher was up in the pulpit, and from where he stood everyone in the pews looked perfect. They were all wearing their Sunday best, the children were all quiet and well-behaved, and no one had fallen asleep. But while the preacher was preaching, a young man entered the back of the church as if he had just come off the street. He smelled up to high heaven, and the congregation quickly moved from focusing on God’s Word to wondering if one of the ushers was going to usher him out.

But the young homeless man walked down the center aisle and took a seat on the floor right in front of the pulpit. The congregation sat stunned while the oldest usher made his way down to the front and instead of berating the young man, he slowly made his way to the floor and sat next to him.

The preacher, witnessing all of this, said to the church, “You all can forget everything I say today, but don’t ever forget what you just saw happen here at the front.”

It’s a nice story right? We can all imagine ourselves in a church setting like that. It even makes us all warm and fuzzy to think about witnessing a holy moment in front of a pulpit.

But the problem with a story like that one is the fact that it makes the church out to be the kind of people who do all the accepting, instead of giving thanks to God for being the One who accepts us in the first place.

It results in us worshipping ourselves instead of worshiping God.

The prophet Isaiah had a tall order. The Israelites were returning from captivity in Babylon to a confused place they’d never even seen. The Word from God came to those who were returning, to those who were too poor to have been exiled in the first place, and to the foreigners who found themselves in a politically unstable part of the world. All of them were unsure of their future when Isaiah offered them a vision of a place where all of them have a place.

It is radical and unnerving Word to those of us with modern sensibilities, whether we’d like to admit it or not, but in God’s kingdom… everyone has a place, including us.

Prior to the return from the exile, membership in God’s community was largely based on being born into the right family, but the vision of who God invites to the holy mountain has nothing to do with genetics, or cultural customs, or skin-pigmentation, or even sexual orientation, but rather on behavior – keep the Sabbath, obey the covenant.

Who we are as Christians is not about what we look like or whom we spend our time with. It’s about loving God and loving our neighbors. God doesn’t even care what church we go to, though Cokesbury is the best one around, God simply hopes for us to live our lives in such a way that we honor and protect every person created by God.

This text, this proclamation from the prophet is good news to the outcasts – to those on the margins of life. It is good news to those who are belittled for their identity, for the people who are not welcomed in many churches on a Sunday morning, and for those who are shamed by the media.

But it is also good news for us, because we are outcasts as well. We are gentiles who have been graciously grafted into God’s vision of a mountain where all are invited to a house of prayer for all people. The good news of this text is that we, not just the people who aren’t here yet, but we are invited to this place even though we don’t deserve it.

And there’s the challenge with being an inclusive church; being inclusive puts all of the power in our hands. But God is the one who invites people to the mountain; God is the one gathering them, not us… because if it were left up to us, we would fail.

Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered. Being inclusive of all peoples means the people on the margins, the ones who suffer at the hands of those in power. But it also means the people in power, the people who thirst for power, the people who are violent for the sake of power.

What happened in Charlottesville last week was terrible, and what makes it even more terrible is the fact that what happened there also happens here in small ways every day.

The practice of racism and bigotry is incompatible with Christian teaching.

To gather together with torches and chants of “The Jews will not replace us!” is incompatible with Christian teaching.

Using tactics of violence and oppression to assert white superiority is incompatible with Christian teaching.

If you turned on the news at all this week and saw what happened in Charlottesville you caught a glimpse of evil. White men and women shooting pepper spray into the faces of black men and women is sinful and shameful. A white man driving a car into a crowd to indiscriminately hurt and main and kill is contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ. An armed militia marching to intimidate and threaten others does not make sense in the kingdom of God.

And it’s much more than what happened in that sleepy little down. The high rate of incarceration that is so heavily skewed toward black bodies is antithetical to the gospel. The muttering of racial slurs and religious discrimination that happens here in our community is offensive and wrong. The assumption that white is right and black is bad, in whatever way, shape, and form it manifests itself, is incompatible with Christian teaching.

From the riots in Charlottesville, to the backyard barbeque racism of Woodbridge, we are a fallen people in need of grace.

And this is why the vision of God’s holy mountain is so important today in particular. Because it is far too easy to talk about loving and including others, it is way too easy to condemn a group of people for the way they treat others, when the very people we are meant to love and include are not just the people on the margins, but also the people responsible for the riots and the racism.

If the vision of the holy mountain and the house of prayer were left to us to achieve, it would never happen. Our judgments and our fear of the other would prevent us from ever bringing that vision to fruition. We, like the Israelites coming home from captivity, or the ones who were left behind, or the foreigners witnessing it all from the outside, can scarcely imagine what it would look like to have everyone gathered together by God.

Only God could make that vision a reality. Only the Lord has the power and the freedom to gather all to the holy mountain. For our God is in the business of making the impossible possible. Our God makes a way where there is no way. Our God sees us not for the sins of our past but for the potential of our future. God sees the people responsible for the riots as sinners who are not outside the realm of mercy. God sees the racist tendencies of our culture and begins transforming perspectives through little seeds of faith that germinate in ways we can scarcely imagine. And God sees us as the sinners we are; God knows how judgmental we can be in our heart of hearts and beckons us to turn back.

God’s vision of the holy mountain, of the house of prayer, is for all: the oppressed and the oppressor, the powerful and the powerless, the rioters and the peacemakers. Only a God who would give his only Son to change the world could prepare a place where all are welcomed. Only a God of impossible possibility could invite people like us into the fold. Only a God of mercy could open the house of prayer for all people. Amen.

What Are You Doing Here?

1 Kings 19.9-18

At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.

I wrote a B- sermon this week on the palpable silence of 1 Kings 19. In praying over the text I felt God nudging me to write about the need for the absence of sound in our lives in order to really hear what God has to say. I had stories picked out about times in my life where I was particularly silent and how transformative they were for me.

The whole worship service, in fact, was planned around the topic of silence, about the need to listen more than speak. And last night, after returning home from the wonderful Ice Cream Social that we had, I turned on the news and realized that my sermon had to go; that I need to start over, because the Lord was speaking and it was time for me to listen.

A few months ago, the overwhelming majority of the City Council in Charlottesville, VA voted to remove a confederate statue of General Robert E. Lee. Lee is somewhat of a beloved figure here in the state of Virginia; people love him without really knowing much about him. And so when the city decided to remove a statue in his honor, people went ballistic. On one side there were people who were thrilled that the city was finally willing to be bold enough to take steps in a new direction, willing to ask themselves hard questions, and willing to publically declare where they were. And on the other side, there were people who were outraged that a man of great respect and honor in history was going to be torn down as if he never really mattered.

And then people stopped talking about it. Weeks and months passed until this weekend when the fever pitch of outrage began to resonate in new and frightening ways.

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Groups from all over the country met in Charlottesville this weekend to protest the removal of the statue, to stand in affirmation of the City Council’s decision, and some with hope to hold the peace.

When I turned the news on last night I saw what I thought was the National Guard entering Charlottesville to keep the peace, but in fact what I saw was armed militia’s from across the country, bearing arms and other weapons in order to name and claim there side.

I saw what I thought were clergy standing tall in protest but then I saw them pushed and spit on and berated by the throbbing crowds. I saw what I thought was a group of young people marching to protect the lives of the protestors, but in fact it was a group of neo-Nazis carrying torches and chanting anti-Semitic rhetoric.

The news then broke to a reporter meeting with different individuals, and she asked them all the same question: “What are you doing here?”

The first man was about my age wearing an army helmet with a rifle hung lazily over his shoulder. He was staring directly into the camera while the reporter asked her question and he responded without hesitation: “I am here to stand up for my freedom. People keep trying to destroy my white heritage and my white church. I am here to stand for free market economics. I am here to destroy the Jews.”

“What are you doing here?”

The next man was older with a long scraggly beard hanging below his neckline. Every thing he said came out as a shout and because it was on the radio they had to bleep out every time he shouted the N-word. He was clearly angry, but his anger was unintelligible.

“What are you doing here?”

The next man was young and was wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt, but before he was able to answer the reporter’s question, angry protestors were pushing forward to him in order to prevent him from speaking.

“What are you doing here?”

Yesterday afternoon a young white man got into his car and drove it into a car of protestors in favor of removing the statue; one of the bystanders was murdered and dozens were injured.

“What are you doing here?”

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Before Elijah’s encounter with the Lord, Queen Jezebel sent a messenger to the prophet telling him that she intended to kill him that very day. Elijah ran for his life and he journeyed into the wilderness. Prior to the cave, Elijah collapsed under a shrub and prayed for God to take his life because he felt worthless, but God sent an angelic messenger who cared for him until sending him on his way. And that’s where our story begins.

Elijah came to a cave and spent the night. In the morning the voice of the Lord spoke to him and said, “What are you doing here Elijah?” The prophet responded with, “Lord, I’ve been a good prophet. I’ve told the people what they were supposed to do, I even struck down the false prophets, but now I’m all alone and people are trying to kill me.”

God, evidently disappointed with Elijah’s answer, commanded the prophet to stand on the mountain. First, there was a great wind, but the Lord was not in the wind. Next there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. Then there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, there was the sound of sheer silence.

When Elijah heard the silence, he went to the mouth of the cave and the Lord asked him again, “What are you doing here Elijah?”

Elijah was a prophet, but he was also a revolutionary. Sometimes the two go hand in hand. He was a defender of the Lord and an enemy of corrupt leaders within his own community. He even killed false prophets. His revolutionary credentials are what make him so important in the New Testament where people were constantly wondering if Jesus was the new Elijah.

What made Elijah revolutionary was his commitment to a world where widows, orphans, and strangers were protected against terrible economic situations and a world out of control. Elijah was like the person more concerned with whether or not the people at Rising Hope have something to eat than what President Trump recently tweeted. Elijah was like the man at the hospital arguing with the intake nurse that someone had waited too long before being treated. Elijah was like couple that did not hesitate to become a foster family for those in need.

And yet Elijah fled. Most of us would’ve done the same. When we feel overwhelmed by the world, by the responsibilities, by the commitments, we run. We flee from helping those who cannot help themselves. We run from the hectic nature of this world to vacation destinations and terrible reality shows. We flee from breaking news reports about the possibility of nuclear geopolitical tensions in a stiff drink or the bottom of a bottle.

It is there, in the caves of our own making, we wait for a word from the Lord. Like Elijah, we wait for God to tell us exactly what to do, or we wait for God to fix all of those external problems, or we wait and hide because we’re not sure if God’s even out there any more.

And that’s when God shows up not with an answer, not with a solution, but with a question, “What are you doing here?”

Being in the presence of God, whether mundane or majestic, is all about being inspired and transformed. Who we were fades into something new and wonderful because God is the one changing, morphing, and moving us.

But Elijah was the same after the experience of silence as he was in the cave; his response to the divine question was the same. He was not changed. The earthquake, wind, fire, all of them were distractions. God was not in any of them. They are a reminder that when we are desperate we are tempted to look for God in all the wrong places, when God is the one looking for us!

We look for God in the big bombastic language of a preacher promising prosperity, or in the raise at work that we think will finally make us financially comfortable, or we look for God in the broken relationships that will never be what they once were.

God’s question to the prophet is important because Elijah’s answer was wrong. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” “O God, I’ve done everything that I can and now I’m the only one left.” Elijah was not alone. There were still thousands of individuals who remained faithful to the covenant. And then God commanded Elijah to “go” because there was still work to do.

And this my friends is grace: Despite Elijah’s fears and failures, his inability to remember the God who called him to be a prophet in the first place, God did not give up on him. God still had work for him to do.

But Elijah could not hear the call to go, until he experienced the sheer silence. For it was in the sheer silence he remembered who he was, and whose he was.

I like to think that we live in a better world than the one we inherited. I like to look at the history books of the past to see how far we’ve come. I am grateful that our church has people in in who do not look like, I am grateful that there are no longer water fountains that say “Colored” and “White.” I am grateful that our children sit in classrooms full of people from all over the world with every shade of skin pigmentation.

But when I turned on the news last night, I realized that maybe we haven’t really come that far at all. Maybe we’ve congratulated ourselves too much for being progressive, because friends there is still work for us to do.

God in scripture is a God for the margins. God, again and again, stands with those who are persecuted and martyred and belittled. And throughout the bible, God implores all of the prophets to be mindful of those who are without, those who are suffering, and those who are forced to the margins of life.

We can distract ourselves from the suffering of the people around us, we can go to the right grocery store and the right shopping center in order to avoid the differences of our community, but we worship a God who was born into the suffering of the world, who was born to parents who do not look like anyone in this room.

There are and will be times in our lives that are so overwhelming that we can lose perspective. Like the powerful prophet, we can be pushed too far from our identity and we can retreat into caves of denial.

We can tell ourselves that what happened in Charlottesville will never happen here, but it does every day in some small way, shape, or form.

            We can tell ourselves that the angry white folk in Charlottesville are fringe racists, but they are here in this community too, they are our parents and brothers and sisters and neighbors. They are mumbling in their cars whenever they pass a black man on the street, and they spit words of hate at black women in parking lots.

            We can tell ourselves that we’re in a better world than the one we inherited, but Charlottesville is but one sign that we’ve still got work to do.

We’ve got work to do because our God is not done with us yet. God is working through people like you and me to make the Kingdom come on earth. God is interrupting our lives whenever we gather in this place for worship, with moments of silence to really confront who we are and whose we are.

God is asking us the same question that the reporter asked the protestors, the same question that Elijah heard in the cave, and how we answer the question defines who we are and whose we are.

“What are you doing here?” Amen.

Don’t Let God Take Care Of Your Garden

Matthew 13.1-9

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on the good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

 

“What kind of soil do you have?!” The street preacher was screaming at anyone with ears to hear and most people were moving as far away as possible. The young college students were far more concerned with getting to class on time than they were with the strange man yelling at them, but he persisted.

“Are you receptive to the Word of God?” Many of the people walking across campus at that moment had spent the last few months and years being receptive to the manifold number of new ideas they encountered in their classroom. The man berating them represented the old way of doing things, the unsophisticated, unkind ways of spreading the news. No one so much as even looked him in the eye.

“If you do not receive the Word you will scorch and wither away for all of eternity!” At some time the threat might have caused people to shudder in fear, or at the very least stop in their tracks and contemplate what their eternal reward might look like. But on that day his words were falling on deaf ears, but he just kept getting louder and louder and louder.

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Unlike the street preacher filled with a faulty sense of evangelism, Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. He did not frighten people in the midst of their daily lives, he did not berate them in the streets, his life and witness captivated people to his presence and they joined him by the water.

Unlike the street preacher, Jesus did not stand on soapbox or peer down on people from the height of a pulpit, he pushed off from shore in a little boat and sat down to tell them parables.

Parables are meant to be confusing. They are not simple and straightforward comments about the kingdom of God. Instead they are meant to leave us scratching our heads until God says what God wants to say.

Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he threw out the seeds as far as he could, some seeds fell on the path and the birds came and ate them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground where they sprang up quickly but were unable to root deeply and were scorched by the rising sun. Other seeds fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked out the growth. Other seeds fell on the good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!

Many of us might have gardens, or at the least we’ve planted something at some point in our lives. We’ve taken the time to find the perfect soil, and the right seed, and the optimum sunlight, and the proper amount of water and we’ve patiently waited for the seed to grow. We know, even the non-gardeners among us, the value of being attentive to the seed, soil, sunlight, and water. Which makes this parable all the more strange because the sower is terrible at his job.

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I mean he goes about flinging the seed this way and that. He doesn’t take the time to assess the pH level of the soil, he doesn’t dig small holes for the seed to be covered, he doesn’t even clear the area of other growth before he casts the seed. The sower in the parable is like a businessman who offers loans to people who have no hope of ever paying it back; like a wealthy family giving food to homeless people who will never find employment, like a parent who keeps forgiving a wayward child knowing they will not change, like a church opening its doors to a bunch of sinners who will always fall back.

The sower doesn’t know what he’s doing. Think about all the seeds that he threw in vain, think about all the time he wasted sowing seeds in the wrong places; what a fool.

And yet this is what God is like: God is the sower who scatters the seed regardless of the soil. Our God is a foolish gardener. At least according to the ways of the world.

Jesus shared this parable with the crowds from the boat on the water. But it was not just a story, it’s how he lived his life. Jesus went from place to place offering the grace and mercy of God without concern for the type of people receiving it. He did not overlook anyone as if they weren’t good enough for the kingdom. He did not scream at people until he was blue in the face trying to convince them to follow him. He just went out to sow.

For the early church this was more than a story that resonated deeply. It was hard to be a disciple shortly after the resurrection of Jesus; poverty and persecution, false prophets and poor communication. The early Christians scattered the seed like Jesus and people rejected it. Not because it was wrong or false or faulty, but because sometimes seeds don’t grow, whether in farming or in faith.

For the people of today, it’s more than story that resonates as well. It should ring familiar to the parent whose words of guidance and support fall on the ears of children who do not listen. They know about hard packed soil. It should connect with the business owner who produces a great product only to have the customer seek out a cheaper company. They know about shallow roots. It should ring true with the church that invites families and individuals to experience the love and grace of God only to have fewer people in the pews each year. They know the heartache of bad sowing.

In ministry, and in life, we spend a lot of time lamenting and despairing about the seeds that don’t take root. We spend countless hours reflecting on why something failed, and what we can do to bring new energy to a dead program, or hope to a lifeless tradition. We keep funneling money into places with the expectation that it will make a difference and we just keep seeing the same thing over and over again.

But the Sower in Jesus’ parable doesn’t do that. The Sower accepts the reality that some seeds will never grow and he keeps on sowing anyway. He is willing to throw out the seed anywhere no matter what the soil looks like. The Sower doesn’t return to the rocky ground and fume with frustration when the seeds don’t grow. No, the Sower has hope that by casting the seed anywhere it will eventually find the right soil and grow abundantly.

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I don’t know about you, but I’ve often heard this passage discussed in such a way that congregations are called to reflect on their personal soil. Like the street preacher I heard in college we are forced to ask ourselves: Do I have shallow soil? Am I a patch of barren ground? Do I have well cultivated soil for God’s seed?

Sermons like that leave congregations reeling on their way out, not feeling confused about the parable. Instead, people like you and me leave church feeling guilty about our dirt.

But the parable is not about us! When we limit this story to our soil we neglect to encounter the beauty and the truth of Jesus’ words. If we leave this place only thinking about the soil of our receptiveness we will miss the miracle of God’s grace. The Sower trusts that the harvest will be plentiful, even a hundredfold.

During the time of Christ sevenfold meant a really good year for a farmer, and tenfold meant true abundance. If a farmer reaped thirtyfold it would feed a village for a year. But a hundredfold, the abundance that Jesus speaks about, would let a farmer retire to a villa by the Sea of Galilee.

The Sower therefore, is not foolish and brash in his sowing; the sower is trusting and faithful.

Do we trust like that? Are we willing to scatter the seeds of God’s grace indiscriminately? Are we filled with hopeful expectation?

Or are we afraid? Would we rather keep putting our hopes and trust in earthly things? Do we think we’re better gardeners than the One who created the Garden?

The parable by the seashore is for those with ears to hear. It is not a call for blind and reckless optimism, but a call to trust that God will provide if we are willing to be seeds for others. Because that’s the thing… sometimes God sows us into the strangest and most unlikely of places.

The older man walked into the back of the church as the announcements were being made. He looked uncomfortable sitting in the pew all by himself and held the bulletin at a distance as if it might attack him. When other people stood up to sing he stood as well but remained silent, and then the pastor asked everyone to pass the peace of Christ.

Immediately the sanctuary erupted into a cacophony of sound as people wandered around greeting one another. The man stood alone for the briefest of moments before someone walked up and wrapped their arms around him. The man was so shocked that he just stood there as a few other people walked over to greet him.

For the rest of the service he sat in his pew staring at the ground and did not listen to a word the preacher said.

And when worship ended and people started to filter of the sanctuary the man began to cry. His eyes welled up slowly at first but the longer he sat there the harder he cried. Eventually one of the ushers saw the man and made his way over to make sure everything was okay.

The crying man looked up and asked, “Do you all greet each other like that every week?”

            The usher shrugged and said, “Of course we do.”

            The crying man then said, “That was the first time anyone hugged me since my wife died six months ago.”

Can you imagine what that man must have felt like that morning? Can you picture how he looked sitting in the pew all by himself? And the hug of a stranger at the beginning of worship changed his life.

That man was in no shape to receive the Word. His life had become the rocky sun scorched ground but God had thrown down a seed anyway. Jesus’ story is about more than having the right soil to receive the Word, it’s about the good Sower who spreads the Word.

All of us are here because God sowed a seed in our lives. It might’ve happened when we were really young through a family member, or it might’ve happened recently through a complete stranger, but we are products of the seeds God has sowed.

And our God is a high risk God. Our God flings seeds this way and that. Our God is relentless in offering opportunities to all people. Over and over again in scripture God calls on the last, the least, and the lost to guide, nurture, and sustain God’s people.

We might not want to let God take care of our backyard gardens, wasting seeds left and right. But when it comes to the garden of the church, when it comes to people like you and me, there is no greater gardener than the Lord. Amen.