Listen | Proper 16

Isaiah 51:1-6

1 Listen to me, you who look for righteousness, you who seek the LORD: Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry where you were dug. 2 Look to Abraham your ancestor, and to Sarah, who gave you birth. They were alone when I called them, but I blessed them and made them many. 3 The LORD will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her ruins. He will make her desert like Eden and her wilderness like the LORD’s garden. Happiness and joy will be found in her– thanks and the sound of singing. 4 Pay attention to me, my people; listen to me, my nation, for teaching will go out from me, my justice, as a light to the nations. 5 I will quickly bring my victory. My salvation is on its way, and my arm will judge the peoples. The coastlands hope for me; they wait for my judgment. 6 Look up to the heavens, and gaze at the earth beneath. The heavens will disappear like smoke, the earth will wear out like clothing, and its inhabitants will die like gnats. But my salvation will endure forever, and my righteousness will be unbroken. (CEB)

Listen

“Listen!”

For children, this is probably the most often spoken to yet least heard word in the English language. When I cooked supper the other day, I called my family three times. Only one of them came to the table. So, the two of us sat together, prayed, and started eating. The rest of the family slowly wandered into the dining room, not because I had called them for supper, but randomly. And they were surprised that some of us were already eating. Two of them even asked, “Why didn’t you call me?” To which I replied, “I did. Three times. But you didn’t listen.” And they protested their innocence saying, “But I didn’t hear you!” To which I replied, “Because you weren’t listening.”

Sometimes we don’t listen because other things—whether they’re good things or bad things, positive things or negative things, peaceful things, or stressful things—have our attention. I get how it happens because I’m just as susceptible to not listening as anyone. If I’m engrossed in a book, for example, good luck getting my attention. You might have to slap it out of my hand to get me to look up. That’s my oldest child, too. One of those times that I called my family to the table for supper, I stood right in front of her and yelled. She had no idea I was there. Admittedly, the book she was reading is an awesome young adult fantasy full of assassins, war, betrayal, love, loss, and friendship.

But still, I called for supper. Despite the other things that might hold our attention over and against everything else, eating is important, too. You can’t live without food. You can’t grow without it.

In this text, God speaks through the prophet Isaiah and calls people to listen. The difficulty is that the audience to whom the prophet speaks are living in the midst of other things that hold their attention. These are the Jewish exiles living in Babylon. They’ve experience hardship. In fact, they’ve been so traumatized by their military defeat, mistreatment by enemies, and forced exile to a foreign land that they’re likely deaf to everything but their own woundedness and pain.

All we have to do to get a glimpse of their context is to read Lamentations 5, “Our property has been turned over to strangers; our houses belong to foreigners. We have become orphans, having no father; our mothers are like widows. We drink our own water– but for a price; we gather our own wood– but pay for it.” “We get our bread at the risk of our lives because of the desert heat. Our skin is as hot as an oven because of the burning heat of famine. Women have been raped in Zion, young women in Judah’s cities. Officials have been hung up by their hands; elders have been shown no respect” (Lamentations 5:2-4, 9-12 CEB). Sometimes our own reality is so painful and broken that it’s the only thing we can see.

In the midst of exile, some of these Jewish transplants were trying to live lives that were righteous. This remnant sought God even as they stood among the rubble of their lives wondering how they could possibly rebuild, replace, replant, or restore what they had lost. There were those who sought God even when it seemed that all of God’s promises to Israel had fallen apart. They still hoped in God. There were likely some skeptics, too, who had given up on God’s promises of blessing.

Isaiah tells the people, especially those who still hope, who still pursue righteousness, who still seek the Lord, to examine their past. “Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry where you were dug. Look to Abraham your ancestor, and to Sarah, who gave you birth. They were alone when I called them, but I blessed them and made them many” (Isaiah 51:1-2 CEB). If you would recall, Sarah and Abraham were barren. Twice in the New Testament, Abraham is described as so old that he was, “as good as dead,” (Romans 4:19; Hebrews 11:12). It was God who made life spring from barrenness in the past, which promises the possibility that life can spring from the barrenness of exile.

Abraham also believed in God’s promises to him and God counted his belief as righteousness (James 2:23). The Hebrew word used here for righteousness has a collective sense of correct order. In the church, we sometimes like to theologize words like righteousness so much that we render the meaning incomprehensible. Righteousness is one of those “church” words that hardly anyone uses outside of church, which it why it doesn’t resonate well with most people. Yet, the word simply points to those who are doing what is correct, right, and honest. In spite of the fact that these people have been carried off, unwillingly, into exile, they are trying to do what is right, to find signs of life amid the barren.

The sounds of the Hebrew poetry in verse 1 even suggest something of this. The words for rock and hewn in Hebrew are צוּר (tsur) and ‎ חֻצַּבְתֶּ֔ם (chutsavtem). They have harsh-sounding consonants that might suggest something hard and barren. They sound quite different from the words for excavation, dug, and cistern, ‎ מַקֶּ֥בֶת בּ֖וֹר נֻקַּרְתֶּֽם (maqevet bor nuqartem), which have gentler, murmuring consonants with m, n, and r that might suggest something drenched or life-giving.

Look to Abraham and Sarah. The people are told to look to their past so they might be enabled to reimagine the future. A nation of many sprang from one barren couple. They had nothing, but God gave them everything. In the same way, God promises to comfort Zion. All the barren wastes and ruins of the land will become lush and verdant like the garden of Eden. From the people’s current state of despair and, perhaps, even a kind of death, will come happiness, joy, thanks, and the sound of singing.

But, honestly, when we’re experiencing difficult times in life, whether it’s the death of a loved one, a difficult move, serious illness, loss of a job, financial difficulty, or any other trauma, it’s easy to lose sight of the possibility for our strength being renewed and our life flourishing again. Experiences like these often lead to depression and self-doubt. In those times we often ask ourselves if God even cares that we’re going through the tough stuff life can throw at us. I know this from my own experiences. We’ve lost family members recently, we moved two years ago, we’ve had loved-ones go through serious illnesses, and we had a child with a persistent illness that was only recently resolved. And when we were in the middle of those things, it was easy to throw up our hands and ask, “What’s next? What more can the world throw at us?”

It’s easy to lose a clear sense of perspective and not even realize that clarity is missing. In times of deep distress, our priority, whether we realize it or not, becomes our own physical, emotional, or familial survival—even if we’re the caregiver for someone else. Every other matter tends to get drowned out by that one thing, which can leave us angry at everything, bitter toward God, and frustrated with others. It can get to the point that those sounds of our anguish are the only things we can hear, the trouble in front of us is all that we can see. There are people in our congregation and in our broader community who are experiencing times like this.

And that’s where these Jewish exiles were in their life when God called them to listen. It’s a place we can recognize because we’ve either been there ourselves, or we’ve walked that dark road with someone we love as they experienced it. God called them to listen, and God calls us to do the same. When all we can see is darkness and ruin, God calls to us and encourages us to listen. It’s not the end. The Lord will offer comfort. Life can flourish again.

But it will require us to listen. We can seek righteousness as much as we want, but how will we know what righteousness is unless we listen to the one who defines it? Finding righteousness means aligning ourselves with God. It means we allow God to chip away the hardness of our hearts so that we can love with hearts of tender flesh. It takes intentionality on our part, and an openness to the movement of God’s grace. We’re told to listen because God is teaching. God is speaking about matters of justice, but we must pay attention and listen. We’re all seeking righteousness or we wouldn’t be in church worshipping God today. But doing what’s right requires us to pay attention.

What does it mean to do what is right? How do we accomplish it for ourselves and for others? Life is meant to be lived for God and for others. How might we—each of us—minister to the people in the world around us, whether they’re a part of our congregation or not? Our church provides many opportunities for service. We have ministries for kids, youth, college students, homebound, hospitalized, we’ve partnered with an afterschool program called Thrive, we provide meals for families who’ve experienced sickness or surgery, Bridges of Hope, and Susanna Wesley Nursery School. There are lots of possibilities, and if none of them fit you, we can do something new and different.

Isaiah reminds us that nothing in this life in permanent. The prophet tells us that the heavens will disappear like smoke and the earth will wear out like clothing. The inhabitants of Earth are all going to die like gnats. Planet Earth’s time is limited by the lifespan of the Sun. Our star’s lifespan is limited by its fuel. The universe is expanding at an incredibly high speed. Some physicists theorize that the universe will keep expanding until it has, essentially, stretched itself into non-existence, with each particle moving so far apart from others that they stop interacting with other particles and lie still. We’re only here for a limited amount of time.

Isaiah doesn’t tell us about the end of creation to frighten us. What he does is set up a comparison between the finite and the infinite. Creation itself will come undone and pass away, but God’s salvation will last forever, and God’s righteousness will never be broken. God’s salvation will endure forever because God is infinite in every respect. God is righteous because God always does what is right. God will do what is right for us. We can trust that the Lord will set things right—even as we stand among whatever ruins might lie around us—because God’s righteousness never ends. God’s salvation will endure forever. And in all the places that were once barren, lifeless, and broken, God will make these things new so that we can share in the fullness of life. God made us to have life, and salvation is the continuation of that life even as everything else falls away.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

Advertisements

Defiled | Proper 15

Matthew 15:10-28

10 Jesus called the crowd near and said to them, “Listen and understand. 11 It’s not what goes into the mouth that contaminates a person in God’s sight. It’s what comes out of the mouth that contaminates the person.”

12 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended by what you just said?”

13 Jesus replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father didn’t plant will be pulled up. 14 Leave the Pharisees alone. They are blind people who are guides to blind people. But if a blind person leads another blind person, they will both fall into a ditch.”

15 Then Peter spoke up, “Explain this riddle to us.”

16 Jesus said, “Don’t you understand yet? 17 Don’t you know that everything that goes into the mouth enters the stomach and goes out into the sewer? 18 But what goes out of the mouth comes from the heart. And that’s what contaminates a person in God’s sight. 19 Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adultery, sexual sins, thefts, false testimonies, and insults. 20 These contaminate a person in God’s sight. But eating without washing hands doesn’t contaminate in God’s sight.”

21 From there, Jesus went to the regions of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from those territories came out and shouted, “Show me mercy, Son of David. My daughter is suffering terribly from demon possession.” 23 But he didn’t respond to her at all.

His disciples came and urged him, “Send her away; she keeps shouting out after us.”

24 Jesus replied, “I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep, the people of Israel.”

25 But she knelt before him and said, “Lord, help me.”

26 He replied, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.”

27 She said, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table.”

28 Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith. It will be just as you wish.” And right then her daughter was healed. (CEB)

Defiled

The latter portion of this text raises questions about prejudice and whether or not one race or people can be superior to others. It raises questions that were lived out on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend. When anyone thinks of themselves as superior to another, the results are appalling and inexcusable.

The difficulty of this text is that it has Jesus call a woman a dog because she is from a different cultural and religious background. It’s one of those moments where we read Jesus’ words and cringe. Let’s unpack the scene a little bit. Jews of Jesus’ day and earlier viewed themselves as superior to the peoples around them. It was, apparently, common for Jews to refer to Canaanites and Samaritans as dogs. Many Jews believed these people were unworthy of a decent thought. Why? Because Jewish tradition said Jews were the chosen people of God. They had displaced the Canaanites in the land under the leadership of Joshua and the Judges, and the Samaritans were essentially half-breeds from the former northern Kingdom of Israel who had intermarried with people of other backgrounds when their tradition forbade it.

Really, at the key to understanding this matter is mercy. Who is worthy to receive mercy? Who is worthy of ours and who is worthy of receiving God’s? And how is one worthy or unworthy?

The heart of the argument is the role of tradition in Jewish life. In fact, the first 15 verses of Matthew 15 show us a disagreement between Jesus and the Pharisees about tradition. Tradition can mean anything from the order of Sunday worship, to some dusty relic in a closet, to the potato salad recipe at the pitch-in dinner.

I mean, Potato salad without mustard is blasphemy. By golly if it doesn’t have mustard in it, someone might just get a beat down. God ordained that potato salad shall have mustard because that’s the way my 5th great-grandmother from Dublin made it when she invented potato salad!

That’s the level of nonsense to which these arguments about tradition can descend when people start in on them. We know we’re supposed to love each other because that’s what God told us to do. But we end up loving tradition (meaning our way and our stuff) more than each other. And we wrap that love of tradition in the guise of holiness. Jesus argued the Pharisees were doing that. In the first fifteen verses, Jesus argues that the Pharisees ignored the commandments of God by adhering to human tradition. The commandment to honor your father and mother meant that you took care of your parents in their old age. The Pharisees got around that because tradition said they could tell their parents that, whatever they were going to give to their parents for their care, they’ll give to God instead. So, they ended up not honoring their father and mother, and thought they were doing something holier than the very thing God commanded them to do. They disobeyed God to fulfill their human tradition and wrapped that tradition in the guise of holiness.

Tradition in and of itself isn’t bad. It can be a good thing. It can ground us solidly in our faith and life. Our order of worship comes from tradition. Praying the Lord’s Prayer comes from tradition. Singing hymns comes from tradition.

But tradition can also work to achieve the opposite of solid grounding, especially if we use tradition to fence people out. When we honor tradition more than people, we’ve squeezed the life out of tradition. We’ve hardened it into irrelevance. Tradition cannot be inflexible. It cannot be held up as more important than people. Our tradition is not the object of our worship. When it is, we’ve turned tradition into an idol. A pastor from Texas once told me that the first thing their congregation does when they put in new carpet is to eat on it. They have a meal in that room knowing someone was going to spill gravy. But they do it so people won’t make an idol of the carpeting. (Sorry, Trustees, if I’m making you cringe a little). People are always more important than our sacred cows.

In our text, Jesus takes up the tradition of ritual cleanliness as an issue. The Pharisees argued that if you eat with unwashed hands, you’re defiling your food and, therefore, yourself for eating it. Their tradition said that you were actually offending God by eating with unwashed hands. Now, most mothers I know will probably start preaching this to their kids before lunch today. (For the hundredth time, wash your hands or God will be mad at you!). But we aren’t going to offend God by not washing our hands before we eat. (Sorry moms. Let me fix that). Kids, honoring your father and mother also means doing what you’re told. So wash your hands when mom tells you to.

Twice before this dispute with the Pharisees over a matter of tradition, Jesus had quoted Hosea 6:6, which says, “I desire faithful love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God instead of entirely burned offerings” (CEB). That word translated as “faithful love” is חֶסֶד (hesed) in Hebrew. It can also mean obligation, kindness, and mercy. Jesus, twice, tells us what God wants of us, “I want mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13; 12:7 CEB). Over and over Jesus preaches that it isn’t the tradition that matters to God. It’s how we treat other people that matters to God. It’s our relationships that matter to God. That’s why Jesus calls the Pharisees blind guides. They don’t see that people are more important than human tradition. They don’t make the connection that following their tradition actually leads to disobedience to God’s direct commandments to honor their parents and love their neighbors.

What defiles isn’t what goes into our mouths, but the words that come out of it. I love Jesus’s image. It’s incredibly kid-friendly. What goes into our mouths—whether we washed our hands or not—goes into our stomach and we poop it out. It all goes into the sewer. But what comes out of our mouths comes from our heart. The evil of our hearts is what defiles us before God. Those are the things that contaminate us. If our heart is full of evil thoughts and intentions, murder, adultery, sexual sins, thefts, false testimonies, and insults, those are the things that are going to come out of our mouth. Our mouth reveals our contamination just like fruit tells us what kind of a tree we’re looking at.

Some parts of tradition, at least the way the tradition was interpreted by some, also said that certain people were outside the scope of God’s care. Tradition suggested certain people didn’t deserve God’s mercy. So, when Jesus goes to the region of Tyre and Sidon, a land inhabited by Canaanites, he’s met by one of these very people and the arguments he has just made are put to the test. When we read what Jesus says to the Canaanite woman, who only wants her daughter to be healed, we cringe. She begs Jesus for the very mercy he’s been preaching and, at first, he ignores her. Then he tells her he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. Then, he calls her and her people dogs.

None of this sounds very Jesus-like. It sounds like he’s living out of the very tradition that he was preaching against just a few verses before. What comes out of a person’s mouth is what defiles them because those words proceed from the heart. It sounds like Jesus is demonstrating an incredible amount of prejudice against this woman who’s coming to him asking for mercy for herself and her daughter. She’s not an Israelite. She’s not a Jew. Yet she knows something of Jesus and his reputation as a healer. She even addresses him as “Son of David,” which has Messianic implications. She knows Jesus has come from God, and she seeks God’s mercy.

Some scholars think this is a moment when Jesus is caught with his compassion down. But what I think is happening here is a demonstration of the argument Jesus has just had: that God desires mercy not sacrifice, compassion not tradition. Of course we can’t know for sure, but I would like to think Jesus knew all along that he would heal this woman’s daughter. But first, he lists the excuses tradition would give any Jew for not showing mercy to an outsider. Tradition says the Messiah is a Jewish thing, not for other people. Tradition says the people of Israel are God’s chosen and elect, not other people. It was an idea that had become a doctrine of favoritism and exclusion in the hands of the very religious leaders who criticized Jesus. It was a doctrine that allowed people to hold contempt for non-Jews and even for Jews who were born into poverty, or born with physical maladies and ill-health.

The woman’s response is perfect. She doesn’t object to God having mercy on the chosen of Israel. On the contrary, she makes God’s mercy for Israel the very grounds of her request for mercy. “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table” (Matt. 15:27 CEB). She understands the very thing about God that Jesus has been teaching, that God is merciful. The way God acts as God toward the human race is through mercy.

When Moses asked to see God’s glorious presence, God said, “I’ll make all my goodness pass in front of you, and I’ll proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD.’ I will be kind to whomever I wish to be kind, and I will have compassion to whomever I wish to be compassionate.” (Exodus 33:19 CEB). God’s mercy extends to everyone. We Christians should know that very well because, by and large, we are not biological children of Abraham. We are God’s children by adoption because God had mercy on us. God’s mercy overflows even to people like us: the dogs of the house whom some interpreters of Jewish tradition would have excluded. That’s us, you know. We’re the dogs. (Which is one of countless reasons why white supremacists ought not think so highly of themselves).

The only claim we have, no matter who we are, is the overflowing mercy of God. When I read the last verse of this text, I can only hear amused delight in Jesus’ tone when he said, “Woman, you have great faith. It will be just as you wish” (Matthew 15:28 CEB).

One more thing to note here is that the word mercy in this text is a verb in Greek, not a noun. Mercy is something we do. It’s the compassion we show, the love we give, the kindness we offer, the charity we provide to and for others. God’s mercy is for everyone. There is no us against them. There is no limit to the mercy of God. Since we have received God’s mercy, what can we offer to others but mercy?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

The Sound of Silence | Proper 14

1 Kings 19:9-18

9 There he went into a cave and spent the night.

The LORD’s word came to him and said, “Why are you here, Elijah?”

10 Elijah replied, “I’ve been very passionate for the LORD God of heavenly forces because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant. They have torn down your altars, and they have murdered your prophets with the sword. I’m the only one left, and now they want to take my life too!”

11 The LORD said, “Go out and stand at the mountain before the LORD. The LORD is passing by.” A very strong wind tore through the mountains and broke apart the stones before the LORD. But the LORD wasn’t in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake. But the LORD wasn’t in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the LORD wasn’t in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat. He went out and stood at the cave’s entrance. A voice came to him and said, “Why are you here, Elijah?”

14 He said, “I’ve been very passionate for the LORD God of heavenly forces because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant. They have torn down your altars, and they have murdered your prophets with the sword. I’m the only one left, and now they want to take my life too.”

15 The LORD said to him, “Go back through the desert to Damascus and anoint Hazael as king of Aram. 16 Also anoint Jehu, Nimshi’s son, as king of Israel; and anoint Elisha from Abel-meholah, Shaphat’s son, to succeed you as prophet. 17 Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu will kill. Whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha will kill. 18 But I have preserved those who remain in Israel, totaling seven thousand– all those whose knees haven’t bowed down to Baal and whose mouths haven’t kissed him.” (CEB)

The Sound of Silence

I thought ministry would be easy. Even after a pastor whom I’ve known since my days in Jr. High told me, “If you can do anything else and be happy, do that instead,” I still had this idea in my head that working as a pastor was going to be this wonderful Spiritual journey full of smiles, blissful happiness, and high levels of job satisfaction. I quickly realized that I had been misled by none other than me, myself. People in the church are still people. We all have our flaws. And we—both clergy and laity—don’t always behave the way we ought.

I think most of us probably get Elijah’s dejection here. It’s relatable. There have been moments, even seasons, when I wanted to throw in the towel and call it quits. Last Sunday I mentioned that bullying saga I went through. I almost took a leave of absence from ministry over it. My move away from that situation was a last-minute emergency thing. I hated leaving that congregation because I loved so many people there, but I was relieved to get out of the bullying situation that had led to many an anxiety attack. Joy gave up a job working for a university and the free masters degree they wanted her to earn while working for them.

The next church to which I was appointed had a decades-long track record being hard on pastors. Of course, no one told me about it at the beginning so I walked in blind. Two years into that appointment the district superintendent told me that certain people in that congregation were complainers before I got there, they were complainers before she became the D.S., and they would be complainers long after we were both gone. In fact, if it hadn’t been for my emergency move, that congregation would have been left without a pastor because they treated their previous one so poorly. I got put there because there was nowhere else to go. All the appointments for that year had already been made.

Now some of the issues that came up there weren’t all the congregation’s fault. I was a lot younger then, inexperienced, still hurting from the bullying stuff, and still fairly naïve about a lot of things. But the accusatory letters written to the bishop and district superintendent behind my back, the mean letters written to me without a name on them, the attempts at sabotage, the lack of common manners on the part of some really dysfunctional people, made it a tough appointment. I get Elijah’s story.

It’s not easy to love the people who are making your life a living hell for no other reason than that’s their habit. I’ve discovered that, for some people, complaining is like breathing and, if they stop complaining, they’ll die. While ministry there was often difficult because of certain people, a lot of good things happened. Still, the broad strokes of my memory paint those years as a painful time. It was like being nibbled to death by ducks. But I still keep in touch with a lot of people from that congregation and feel only love for them. Others, not so much. But, the love one develops for good people in the midst of difficult times tends to stick. And mine has. It has been a great joy in my life to be able to remain a part of their lives.

Then, I had two really great church appointments in a row. I was at the first one for three years and the second for four years. The problem was that Joy and I wanted to stay put somewhere. We had children. We wanted a home, and we wanted to put down roots. And the churches wanted us to stay there: they loved and cared for us and we loved and cared for them. But then we got uprooted again and again. And we hurt so badly. We didn’t think the church should treat pastors and their families so flippantly. At the second of those churches, Joy was going to start her masters degree once again. She felt a call to minister to children. She had plans to work with kids who didn’t have a voice. And, due to our being moved, she had to give up her graduate degree for a second time. Our children had to give up beloved friends and activities. And we all had to give up a faith community that had truly become our family.

So, my family and I, we kind of get Elijah’s despondency. We get it that, when a person tries to serve God they’ll have both successes and failures. They’ll be loved and reviled by different people at the same time. They’ll have moments of joy and moments of pain, they’ll find pieces of community and abject loneliness.

This text shows us one of Elijah’s deepest moments of pain. If you look at what happens just prior to it, Elijah was at the height of his prophetic career. He had just won a miraculous victory at Mount Carmel over the prophets of Baal—450 of them to one prophet of the Lord! He seemed unstoppable. He was going to bring the people of Israel back into the covenant God made with their ancestors. He was going to teach them how to live faithfully so they would be blessing to other nations, just as God declared in the covenant. Imagine how great he must have felt, the hope he must have had for his people, the joy that must have filled his heart that they were turning back to the Lord!

Then Queen Jezebel sent him a threatening message saying she was after him. And when she got ahold of him, he was a dead man. In that moment, the bottom fell out of the barrel for the Man of God. Elijah didn’t merely come down from the proverbial mountain, he fell off the summit cliff and splattered in the foothills. He was terrified and he ran for his life (1 Kings 19:3). By the time he got to the cave, Elijah was so distraught that he’d had enough of living. Can you relate?

When God asked him, “Why are you here, Elijah?” the prophet’s response is that he has worked so hard for the Lord. But the Israelites have done terrible things. They’ve forsaken the covenant, torn down the Lord’s altars, and killed the lord’s prophets. He’s the only one left, and now they’re going to kill him. In that moment, Elijah could only see his fear, failure, and forlornness. There was nothing left for him to give. What more could he possibly do?

God told him to go stand on the mountain before the Lord because the Lord is about to pass by. A strong wind tore through the mountains: a wind so powerful it shattered stones. But the Lord wasn’t in the wind. Then, the earth shook, surely ripping more of the mountain apart, but the Lord wasn’t in the earthquake. Then, fire scorched the land and seared the air, but the Lord wasn’t in the fire. After the fire “there was a sound. Thin. Quiet” (1 Kings 19:12 CEB). Another translation calls it “a sound of sheer silence” (NRSV).

When Elijah heard the sound of silence, he went out to speak to the Lord. God asked him the same question, and a still dejected Elijah gave the same answer. He’s worked hard. The peoples refuse God’s covenant. They’ve destroyed the Lord’s altars and killed the Lord’s prophets. He’s the only one left, and they’re after him.

At first glance, the Lord’s response almost feels insensitive. “Go back through the desert to Damascus and anoint Hazael as king of Aram. Also anoint Jehu, Nimshi’s son, as king of Israel; and anoint Elisha from Abel-meholah, Shaphat’s son, to succeed you as prophet” (1 Kings 19:15-16 CEB). But, when you look at what God provides for Elijah, it’s incredibly compassionate. For one, God doesn’t give up on Elijah, even though Elijah has given up on himself. Instead, God gave him a plan. Elijah was given three tasks but he only got one of them done. He designated Elisha as his successor, and it’s Elisha who does the other two. Elisha encouraged Hazael to assassinate the king of Aram and usurp the throne. It was also Elisha who instigated the rebellion of Jehu against King Joram of Israel.

One thing we can take away from this is that we don’t have to accomplish everything ourselves. We do what we can. We accomplish that which can be accomplished and trust that neither the world, nor the church, rests on our shoulders alone. God will prevail.

For another, God lets Elijah know that, despite how lonely he feels, he is most certainly not alone. This is the part that assuaged Elijah’s deepest fear. The Lord has left seven-thousand in Israel who have not knelt down to Baal or kissed Baal’s image. There are people of faith in the congregation of Israel. There are those who hold fast to the covenant. All is not lost. God will continue to be with the faithful.

If we had read verse 19, we would have discovered that Elijah left the cave and found Elisha. It took a moment of quiet, a time of prayer, for Elijah to hear the Lord’s voice and find his way forward. That’s something we need, too. I once heard a pastor joke that, if you want to make your congregation uncomfortable, let silence linger in worship for more than 10 seconds. We are so used to noise—both literal and metaphorical—that silence is scary. We aren’t used to quiet. We’re used to the wind, earthquake, and fire. If we don’t have some kind of audio stimulation going on, we get uneasy, even scared. People leave their TV on when they aren’t even watching it because silence is uncomfortable.

I dare you to turn off all the noise, find a quiet place, and spend 10 minutes in absolute silence. Don’t even talk to yourself. Turn the voice in your head off and just be silent. It’ll take some practice before you’re able to do it successfully. Use those minutes of quiet as preparation for prayer. And, when you pray, try listening for God’s voice as much as you speak.

Prayer is where we find God. Sometimes, we need to shut everything else off so we can hear when God speaks. I’ve begun to seek those moments of quiet again. It’s not easy to shut off the noise or set aside my worries, or the weight of my responsibilities, or the need to get the things on my to-do list checked off. Simon and Garfunkel were right about the sound of silence. We need to set aside the distractions of the world—the flashing neon lights, the babel of people talking without speaking, the pretense of people hearing without listening—so we can see and hear rightly.

No matter who we are or how passionate we are for God, we’re going to have ups and downs. We’ll have days when we’re on the mountain and unstoppable, and we’ll have days where we’re hiding in a cave, utterly dejected. We’ll have times when our faith feels unbreakable, and times when our faith feels like it’s been shattered to pieces. Yet, no matter where we are on any given day, some things are certain.

We are not alone. God is with us and we have a community of people who love us and will choose to walk beside us and hold us up when we stumble or fall.

There is always more to do for God’s kingdom, but we do it best by working together.

God will never give up on us no matter what we think of ourselves. God’s love for us is simply too great, too unbreakable, too much for God to let go of us.

~Pastopher

Come to the Waters | Proper 13

Isaiah 55:1-5

1 All of you who are thirsty, come to the water! Whoever has no money, come, buy food and eat! Without money, at no cost, buy wine and milk! 2 Why spend money for what isn’t food, and your earnings for what doesn’t satisfy? Listen carefully to me and eat what is good; enjoy the richest of feasts. 3 Listen and come to me; listen, and you will live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful loyalty to David. 4 Look, I made him a witness to the peoples, a prince and commander of peoples. 5 Look, you will call a nation you don’t know, a nation you don’t know will run to you because of the LORD your God, the holy one of Israel, who has glorified you. (CEB)

Come to the Waters

My mother once told me to be careful of deals that sound too good to be true because they probably are. Can you imagine a billboard or TV commercial inviting the public to come and get all you need for free? Most of us would assume something was up, some game must be afoot, some ulterior motive has to be at play. That’s exactly the kind of invitation God seems to offer through Isaiah. Isaiah invites everyone who’s thirsty or hungry to come and buy food and drink, even if they don’t have any money to make the purchase! Yet, this is not quite the no-strings-attached deal that it might, at first, sound like. Really, it’s a prophetic invitation to make an exchange from one way of life to THE way of life.

There are a few important things that we need to understand about Biblical prophets. First, one common misconception is that the prophets tell us the future, but that’s not even close to the main point of what the prophets intend to say. The primary concern of the Biblical prophets is to speak God’s word to God’s people so that the people might turn wholly back to God. Sometimes that prophetic word contained an element of, if you don’t change your ways, then this bad thing will happen and, if you do change your ways, then this good thing will happen, but prophets were not really concerned with telling the future so much as they were concerned with telling the truth about God and how people were living.

The prophet Amos, for example, spoke against the rich and powerful who were neglecting to care for the poor and powerless in a time when the rich kept getting richer at the expense of the poor, and the poor kept getting poorer. For a prophet who preached in the 8th century B.C., his words are incredibly relevant today.

The prophetic story begins with a God who searches us out and seeks to be in a relationship with each member of the human race. The prophets spoke deeply challenging words in order to get people’s heart, mind, body, and soul in line with the way of life that God designed for humanity as good and life-giving for everyone. Prophets are the ones who called people to account. Even words that were meant to comfort God’s people, such as the whole of Isaiah chapters 40 through 55, which is often called the Book of Consolation, profoundly challenges those who hear it.

Second, Biblical prophecies are full of paradigms that can allow for multiple interpretations across the ages. There is always the original context of the prophetic words. Then, there are the many ways people have understood those same words to apply to them and their context in later years. The original context of Isaiah 55, for example, is most likely the Babylonian exile, but later generations have heard these words and understood them differently in their own contexts. Amos was the earliest of the writing prophets but, as I said, his words are hauntingly relevant 28 centuries later.

Let’s look at that original context of Isaiah 55:1-5. Many of the exiled Jews in Babylon had followed the advice of the prophet Jeremiah who told them to settle into life in their new location. “The LORD of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because your future depends on its welfare” (Jer. 29:4-7 CEB).

So, settle in they did. Some prospered quite well and, when the opportunity to return to Judah came about by King Cyrus of Persia’s decree, some descendants of these exiles chose to stay because life was good. In fact, some stayed in that land until the formation of the modern state of Israel.

Isaiah’s prophetic word to the people in exile was a call to return to the Lord, to remember the place from which they came. This is a promise of restoration to an exiled people, some of whom have probably gotten caught up in the glitz, glamor, and wealth of cosmopolitan Babylon. Others among the exiles might have been struggling with the basic necessities of life, and these words would serve as a reminder that God would bring them home.

Curiously, Isaiah asks why the people spend their money for that which is not food and their earnings for that which does not satisfy. In that sense, what Isaiah seems to speak against is a misalignment of priorities and values of some kind. If Isaiah were to ask these questions to us, how might we answer? In what ways do we spend our money for things that aren’t food and our savings for things that don’t satisfy? If we take the question literally, we Americans are a people who are easily caught up in the vicious cycle of consumerism. Many of our compatriots spend more than they earn, have amassed insurmountable debt, yet continue to buy and spend as if money grows on trees.

We’re so easily caught up in this cycle because every commercial we see or hear entices us to shell out money for things that promise to satisfy us. Advertisements promise us happiness, contentment, fulfillment, a sense of power, prestige, or a means to impress others and get them to think well of us. In fact, many Americans have so many bills to pay from so many products we’ve been seduced to purchase that we hardly have time for things like family, friends, and other meaningful relationships. We work, not so we can live happily with those we love, but so we can pay for the stuff we can’t afford but bought anyway.

It isn’t only consumerism that can suck us into a black hole, but how we spend our time. During a particularly difficult period of my life, I became completely addicted to computer games. They were my escape from a bad reality of anxiety and depression when I was bullied in my workplace. I spent hours each day in front of a screen. I neglected my wife. I neglected my children. I chose my computer over the people I loved the most, to the point that my wife started to call my computer, “the other woman.”

Thankfully, God gave me the chance to get out of that mess. I realized that I could either continue down that destructive path or I could choose to devote my time to people in ways that would be productive. So, I quit playing games and started giving my attention to those who deserved it, needed it, and wanted it. I worked on my relationships with people that were life-giving for me and for them. I realized it was my choice to do one or the other. I also realized that my time doesn’t only belong to me. My time also belongs to others, especially the people I love and who love me. It was a challenging thing to realize that I don’t belong wholly to myself. We are meant to live in community with each other. That’s how God made us.

Through Isaiah’s word, God called the people in exile to listen and invest themselves in the relationships and things that mattered. They were invited to come to God so that they could live–truly live. They were invited to pay attention and partake in those things that are good, satisfying, and delightful.

Those who answered the call would be party to an everlasting covenant, represented by God’s steadfast and sure love for David. Isaiah set David before the people as an example of God’s faithfulness. God was with David throughout his life, and made promises to him that were kept. The people could believe what God was saying to them. If they harbored doubts about God’s fidelity, then they could remember what God did for David. More than that, other nations that they don’t even know will run to them because of the renewal they experience. Others will see and be curious enough to take a closer look. This insignificant, broken, humiliated nation will survive and shine like a light to other, more powerful nations surrounding them, if they partake in the kind of life that is good and delight in the Lord.

No matter what situation we’re in, there is a chance for renewal, a promise of a new future. But it doesn’t just happen magically. We have to choose that future by exchanging a destructive way of life for a productive way of life. There will never be a new golden age in our lives, our relationships, or our communities if we don’t even attempt them. We have to incline our ear to God’s prophetic message. We have to listen and choose the things that are good and life-giving.

Some of the ways we do that are by devoting ourselves to the Spiritual disciplines and means of grace of our Christian faith. Another might be to devote ourselves in some specific ways to serving others, or investing ourselves in our faith community and our local community in impactful ways. What’s more, others will see how we live. Our lives are never as insulated or private as we think. Others see how we spend our time and the way we interact with those around us. When we devote ourselves to God and to others, when we show love and care for the people in our lives, the world knows.

Through Isaiah’s words, God invites us to this banquet. A banquet to which anyone can come. Any person who thirsts for water is invited to drink. Anyone who hungers for something to eat, whether they have money or not, is invited to buy food and join in. For some of us, that might not be a comfortable notion. This is a meal where everyone is on the A list, even people whose presence we might call into question. But this meal is a reflection of God’s kingdom and that kingdom’s values, which are not necessarily our values. Everyone is invited.

God promises an everlasting covenant and a way of life that builds community and egalitarianism among those who share in it. The walls that formerly divided rich from poor, powerful from weak, predator from vulnerable will be torn down when we choose the kind of life-giving way of life that God holds up before our eyes. What matters is how we treat one another. How we love one another. How we devote ourselves to those around us. Even how generously we give. Those things reveal something of our devotion to God. Through Isaiah, God doesn’t merely invite us to feast. God invites us to feast with each other.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher