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.

Prayer

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.

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.

Clean Hearts – Homily for Ash Wednesday on Psalm 51.1-12

Psalm 51.1-12

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and lot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.

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You are dust, and to dust you shall return.

For the last thousand years, these words have been traditionally used for this particular day. A priest or pastor will place a finger in the ashes, making the sign of the cross on a forehead, while whispering the words “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

These are frightening words. We have gathered today to be reminded of our own finitude, to mark the beginning of our forty day observance of Lent, to engage in a period of prayer and fasting. This is a solemn event in the life of our liturgical church, for today we are being asked to think about our own mortality.

When I was in seminary one of my professors told me that the hardest thing about being a pastor is that I have to remind people that they are dying when everything and everyone else tries to claim the contrary. I have been given the unenviable task of proclaiming the true and deep message of Ash Wednesday; we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

Most of us tempted to believe that we are invincible and that life will never catch up with us. We are tempted to believe that death isn’t real. Countless commercials and products are advertised with the sole purpose of prolonging our inevitable end. Even here in church, we spend so much time talking about the joy and hope of God in the resurrection from the dead, that we fail to spend adequate time reminding ourselves of our own finality.

Today, as we take our first steps into Lent with the ashes on our foreheads, we are like the psalmist who cried out, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love… wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” This is a time for us to deeply reflect on the ways that we can be better, the relationships to reconcile, and the new habits to cultivate. Lent is less about giving something up, and more about reorienting yourself back to God in order to use this life that has been given to you. Our desire is for God to create in us clean hearts and to put a new and right spirit within us. We have been given the greatest gift, the gift of life. The question we need to ask ourselves is this, “What are we doing with that great gift?”

In our narthex there is a plaque hanging on the wall in honor of Zig Volskis, a beloved former pastor of St. John’s. On the plaque you will find these words: “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart” (Psalm 90.12). Life is a fleeting and precious thing, one that we should not take for granted. Let us all learn to count our days, to reflect on our many blessings, rejoice in the gift of life and let our lives be fruitful for those around us.

Death is a frightening thing. Contemplating our finitude and celebrating it in worship is by far one of the strangest things we do as a church. But in the end, we do it so that we may gain wiser hearts, so that God might sustain us in the midst of our sinful lives, and above all so that we can appreciate the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the glory of the resurrection. Let God use this Lenten season to help create in us clean hearts.

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My friends, you are dust, and to dust you shall return. For the next forty days we will rest in the shadow of the cross, but remember this, the glory of the resurrection outshines everything, even death. 

Amen.