Sunday, February 12, 2006
I would like to continue a recent discussion about poetry and theology. As I have said before, poetry is a prayerful speech that will dance with words far longer than words will dance by themselves.
I want to share another poem of which this Lords Day has reminded me. I had the honor to return to a church of which I was on staff a couple of years ago. St. Paul's church of the Nazarene lavished God's grace on me today. Today the wood drake rested its beauty in the midsts of the people of St. Paul's. Thank you Father for the rest I found in sabbath.
The Peace of Wild Things
by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Tuesday, February 07, 2006
I decided to post my sermon from this past Sunday. Let me know what you all think?
The Gospel reading is Mark1:29-39.
The Gospel of Our Lord.
Now, I don’t know about all of you, but there’s got to be a reason Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law. Perhaps Jesus knew how much Peter loved his mother-in-law, right? Or maybe the joke was on Peter. Is it any surprise Mothers-in-Law Day is less than a week before Halloween? Hey, what do you call your mother-in-law buried up to her neck in sand? Not enough sand. No, I’m just kidding. I love my mother-in-law. Anyway, we see in our gospel reading this morning something really amazing. We see Jesus at the beginning of his ministry teaching, healing, casting out demons. This is God. The God of creation revealed to us and revealing to us the Kingdom of God is in the flesh and preaching the Good News fulfilled in the resurrection. He is preaching that we, in all of our brokenness can be whole and holy.
But, now, that I’ve read our Gospel scripture this morning, I want to tell you another story. This one comes from 2 Kings chapter 4. The hero in this passage is Elisha. I’m sure all of you have heard of this prophet Elisha. He and his predecessor Elijah were bright spots in Israel’s history. There were a lot of folk who just weren’t real nice. Elijah had been taken up and left the lot of his work as a prophet to Elisha. Elisha was teased by children, and I’ll let you read that story on your own in chapter 2:23-25. Elisha gave a word to the Kings of Israel, Judah, and Edom and they had water for their men and animals during battle. Then we come to chapter four. Our hero Elisha is confronted by the widow of one of his followers. She was distraught with the fear of not only losing her husband, but loosing her two children as well. You see, the man had quite a bit of credit card debt built up and because he died before he paid it back, the debt was transferred to his wife and children. Back then, any unpaid debt that defaulted meant the payment would’ve been the children or even the wife. The widowed mother was heartbroken at a point of unbearable grief. And at that point of grief, this widow looked to Elisha.
Elisha asked her what she wanted him to do. “What do you have in your house?” He asked her. She said, “I’ve got nothing, unless of course you count this jar of oil.” Elisha said, “I want you to go out and borrow jars and Tupperware and Rubbermaid containers from everyone you know and not just a few; get a whole bunch. Then go into your house, shut the door behind you, and start pouring the oil from the jar you have into the borrowed Tupperware.” So, she did just as Elisha had told her. Her children traded out the containers as she poured and poured and poured the oil. She poured each container up to the brim until there were no more containers, then, this ever flowing jar of oil stopped flowing. She ran to tell Elisha the great news and he told her, “Now sell the oil, pay off all of your credit cards, and live on the rest.”
Once again we see our great provisional God working in the world. Here again we see the God of creation at war against this world that works so hard to subvert his love with poverty, pain, and sadness. But God is bigger than poverty. And he answered this woman’s request with gusto. He not only took care of her debts, but also provided for her and her children’s lives. Considering her place in the story, we know she was faithful. She didn’t come to Elisha because he owed her anything for all the years of service her husband provided Elisha. She came to him in faith, knowing that God would provide. And oh, how he provided.
One day Elisha was passing through a town called Shunem. There was a very wealthy woman there who asked Elisha to come and eat with her and her husband. Elisha became close to the couple and ate meals with them anytime he passed through the town. Knowing that Elisha was a prophet of God, the woman talked her husband into building on a room for Elisha to stay in anytime he came to town. What a gift. When Elisha was back in town, they showed him up to his room. He was so pleased. Elisha laid down on his bed, it must have been one of those pillow top mattresses or maybe even a sleep number set to his ideal firmness, because he had his servant, Gehazi, bring the woman up to his room. Elisha wanted to thank her for going to all the trouble of building and preparing a room for him. He asked her if there was anything he could do for her. “Can I tell the king of your kindness? Or maybe I can put in a good word to the general for you?” She said, “No, thank you. I am just from a small town and don’t really want a lot of attention.” Elisha said, “What can I do to thank you, then?” The woman answered, “Well, there is one thing, you see, I can’t have kids and I’d really like to have a son.”
I have to stop here and let you in on a little secret. Throughout the Bible there are stories of little old barren women. And I can tell you that when a little old barren woman cries out to God, he hears. Just ask Sara, Rebekah, Rachel, Samson’s mother, Hannah, Elisabeth. I’m not one to make broad sweeping statements about God, but God is faithful! He is our deliverer and in the case of these women, he is literally their deliverer as he delivers babies for them. But, back to our hero, Elisha.
Elisha said to the woman, “This time next year, you will hold your very own little baby boy!” The woman’s jaw dropped. She said, “Now, don’t joke around with me. I’m too fragile to be tricked.” Elisha said, “No joke.” The next day, he left for other business throughout the country. In a few months time, the woman became pregnant. And a year after Elisha told her, she had her own baby boy. As the little boy grew up he would work out in the fields with his father. His father looked over at him just as the boy grabbed his head and complained of a really bad headache. His father was worried about him and had his servant take him into his mother. She held him on her lap until noon, and he died. Immediately she took him up to Elisha’s room and laid him down on Elisha’s bed. She told her husband that she was going to take a servant and go visit Elisha. He said, “But it’s not sacrifice time and it’s not even the Sabbath. Why go to him now?” The woman answered, “Don’t worry about it. Everything will be all right.”
Now, keep in mind that everything was not all right. Her son just died in her arms, her only son. Of course everything was not all right. Yet she made this pure, crystal clear, statement of faith. And that’s what it was, wasn’t it? It was a statement of faith. Can you hear the echos of Abraham answering Isaac’s questions about the ram? God will provide. Listen to this woman say, “It will be all right. God will provide.” Oh, to have that much faith in the everydayness of my life. What a testimony to God’s faithfulness! But I digress. Let’s get back to our hero Elisha.
The woman saddled up her donkeys and left, telling the servant not to slow down for her. He needed to get news to Elisha. As she approached Mr. Carmel, Elisha saw her and immediately knew something was wrong so he sent Gehazi, his servant, to meet her. Once again, when Gehazi met her and asked what was wrong she answered, “It is all right.” But when she made it to where Elisha was, the wealthy woman jumped down off of her donkey and violently grabbed a hold of Elisha’s feet. She immediately began questioning Elisha, “I asked if you were kidding me when you said the Lord would give me a son! I made you swear that you weren’t just giving me false hope! He said to Gehazi, “Gird up your loins.”
Now, let me take just a moment here to ask, “What is girding up your loins?” Wait, nevermind!
Elisha told Gehazi to go quickly, not stopping for anyone or anything, and lay his staff on the boys face. Gehazi went on ahead. But this didn’t satisfy the woman. She insisted that Elisha go home with her. So, he did. When Gehazi arrived at the woman’s home, he did just as Elisha had told him and placed the staff on the boy’s face. But there was no sound or sign of life in him. When Elisha finally made it to the house, he saw the child dead on his bed. He went in, closed the door, and immediately started to pray to the God of Life. Then, Elisha did the most remarkable thing. This is where the story takes on life of its own, so to speak. Elish stood up from kneeling. He looked down at boy’s lifeless body. And then he climbed up on the bed and laid right across him with his hands on the boy’s hands, his eyes on the boy’s eyes, and his mouth on the boy’s mouth as though it were some sort of holy mouth to mouth resuscitation. As he did this, Elisha felt the child’s body warm up. He climbed down off the bed and paced once back and forth across the room. Then, he climbed back on top of the boy, and immediately, the boy sneezed seven times. He sneezed! Sneezed! I said that three times in case you didn’t here me the first or the second. The dead boy sneezed and then opened his eyes. He was alive and well. Elisha had Gehazi call in the Shunamite woman. When she saw her living son, she fell at Elisha’s feet and immediately took her son down to his father and said, “See, see! I told you it would be all right!”
The Shunamite woman knew that God would be faithful and deliver her son. She knew that she knew that she knew! Because you have to know that poverty still offers hope. Hunger still has the pangs of hope in the growl that precedes even the smallest crumb of bread. But in death, there is not hope, none at all. Death is the ultimate hopelessness. And resurrection is the ultimate end to hopelessness, breaking it into a million little pieces. If God’s power and love cannot bring life to the lifeless, then what good is money or food or good health? Now, imagine what this story means to us as we are resurrected with Christ. Isn’t God good?
But it’s not over because when Elisha returned to Gilgal (and by the way, I mentioned Mt. Carmel earlier and Gilgal now because these are the two places that most reflected faith for these now settled Hebrews.) there was a famine. The group of prophets that Elisha was discipling was there with him. He told his servant to fix a big pot of stew. The servant went out and gathered up some herbs and spices from the garden. He found some wild gourds just on the other side of the garden and grabbed some of those, thinking it would be good in the stew. The servant sliced up the herbs and the gourds and cooked it all together. As he proudly served his stewed creation to the best prophets in all of Israel and Judah, he awaited their compliments to the chef. But instead of compliments, he noticed a couple of them gagging. Two others were contorting their faces in the most disgusted of expressions. Still another yelled out “There’s death in the stew!” They couldn’t eat another bite. Elisha, very calmly, said, “Well, then bring me some flour.” As if no one had thought of this before. Sure, I use flour to keep food from being poisoned. His servants brought it to him and he threw some flour in the pot. He told the servants to serve the other prophets and everything would be fine. And it was. The stew was suddenly good.
Wow, God can even make horrible food good. He redeems horrible things. He transforms that which is spoiled and poison into sustaining grace. It is beauty from ashes. How many of us live a mundane life, a life that just doesn’t taste right? How many of us live life that is downright poison? The same God who is at war with a world that would impoverish, kill, or poison is the same God who will sustain, enrich, resurrect, and make whole again. He is the God of possibilities.
A man came from Baal-shalishah and brought the best food he had grown and raised all year. He brought it to Elisha as a gift. Elisha told his servant to feed the people who were there. The servant indignantly asked, “How is this going to serve 100 people?” It’s like asking how God is going to give little old barren ladies a baby. Elisha said, “Just give it to the people and let them eat. God already told me that they’ll eat and have some left over.” When the servant fed the people, he discovered that apparently God was right and there was even food left over.
Each of these stories should remind you of the stories of Jesus. Countless times he healed, fed thousands, made broken people whole again. It was the message of the Kingdom of God! It was a reminder to people that God was with them and that he would not leave them orphaned. It was the ethic of his words put into action. When Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, raised the dead, he was illustrating what a faithful God does. It was not a sideshow of his ministry, it was the Gospel revealed in very real ways. It was the Word made flesh. Jesus’ message was holiness and his miracles illustrated just how God works in this world, the very same world he is at war in, transforming the broken, the sick, the hungry, the bored, the washed-out, the dirty, the alcoholic, the divorced, the abused, the faded, the lazy into whole and holy people of God spreading out into this world doing whatever it takes to pour out God’s blessing on those who need it.
But do you need God? Do you really need him or do you get along just fine without him? Because if you don’t need him, then by all means make room for those who do! Because there are people in this world dying to know the love of Jesus Christ and you are just taking up their space if you don’t need him. And I mean really need him. These are stories of Elisha and Jesus and the way God works in this world. They are the stories of people needing God and knowing that they need God. They are the stories of people who realize that they cannot be holy without him. Too often we try to live in a world stacked against us as though we don’t need anybody. We can do it on our own. And sure we can, right? I mean look at all you did to get that raise last year. You work hard to make great grades so you can get into the best college, or any college for that matter. Your home looks so inviting did you decorate it yourself? Sure you have a lot of debt now, but you’ve got to work the hours to get out, right? Joshua said, “Choose today whom you will serve. Would you prefer to serve the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates? Work, money, family, television (ooh, that hurts). My household and I will serve the Lord.” After assuring Joshua that they would have no problem serving the Lord Joshua says, “You can’t do it. You can’t serve him on your own!” We love doing these things on our own. But we can’t do it. We just can’t do it. So, do you need God? You see, he is not the God of empty promises. He is the God of possibilities. And if you do need him, then the time has come to take the blessings of a Faithful Deliverer and pour them out to others. Holiness is about loving God and loving neighbor and if you are missing one of those, you’re missing both. To love, you must be willing to live blessing to those around you including your mother-in-law.