The Prophethood of All Believers | 23 June 2013

Text: 1 Kings 19:1-13

Good morning.  Our family has been anticipating this day for quite some time now and it’s very good to be with you.  I have to tell just one story from the April candidating weekend.  I appreciated all the opportunities to meet with different ones of you personally along with Commissions and Council and had a positive feeling about things as the Sunday service was coming to a close.  We knew we wanted to come here, but had to wait to make sure that the feeling was mutual.  Knowing there was going to be a vote that evening, Stella B. wrote on one of the unused name tags, and gave it to me as our family was walking out into the lobby after the service.  It said, “Me for pastor,” and she instructed me to stick it to my shirt.  With Stella as our campaign manager, I was pretty sure at that point things were going to work out well.

The prophethood of all believers.

You are most likely familiar with the idea of the priesthood of all believers, that marvelous humanizing notion that came out of the 16th century Protestant Reformation.  The priesthood of all believers is this great equalizer which teaches that each and every one of us – old, young; female, male; installed, not installed; members of any of the many vocational paths one might take – we all have access to the Divine, and the Divine is uniquely represented in each one of us as ministering persons.  It’s as simple as that.  The priesthood of all believers was first taught by Martin Luther and has been embraced by Anabaptists.  From what I have come to know of CMC so far, this is a value you whole-heartedly embrace.

The Old Testament lectionary reading for today comes from 1 Kings 19, and it involves Elijah, fleeing for his life, and encountering God in an unexpected way on top of Mt. Horeb.  Elijah is not a priest, but a prophet, so I thought we might ponder if there might be such a thing as a prophethood of all believers and what that might look like.  Might the prophethood of all believers be as pertinent for the 21st century as the priesthood of all believers was for the 16th century?

When we meet up with Elijah in this text he has just come off a rather intense encounter with the prophets of Baal, the storm god of the Canaanites.  Intense as in he was outnumbered 450 to 1, and still managed to win the battle of the prophets contest by invoking Yahweh to send down fire on his sacrifice after the prophets of Baal had whooped and hollered at Baal for a good part of the day with nothing to show for it.  Elijah had done some prophetic trash talking at them saying that perhaps Baal was sleeping, or on vacation, or perhaps deep in meditation unable to hear their cries.  Perhaps if they would shout louder.  But they get nothing from Baal but silence.

When it’s Elijah’s turn he barely finishes his prayer when fire falls from heaven and burns up his sacrifice and everything else around it.  Yahweh 1, Baal 0.  For good measure, now with the people on his side after witnessing such an awesome spectacle, Elijah has all 450 prophets of Baal taken down to a valley and slaughtered.  Intense.  Elijah was apparently not an Anabaptist.  Now it’s Yahweh 451, Baal 0 – a run spread.

When we pick things up in chapter 19, where Marlene began reading, the king’s wife Jezebel, who is no fan of Yahweh or Elijah, has just caught wind of what Elijah has done and vows to carry out some symmetrical justice on him – doing to him what he did to all those Baal prophets.  So Elijah flees the scene, and heads south.  So far south that he ends up at the same place associated with an earlier prophet of Israel – Mt Horeb, also known as Mt. Sinai, out in the desert, where Moses had received the Torah on behalf of the children of Israel.  Now, centuries later, Elijah stands on that same spot.  It’s a formative location for both of those members of the prophethood.

Back in May I sat down with Gordon to hear from him about his interim experience here in the last year.  At one point he mentioned three words that he thought summarized life at CMC that he said I would do well to keep in mind.  His advice was to collaborate, listen, and laugh.  I had two main thoughts when he said this.  My second thought was how wonderful a summary this is of life in the church, and how much it represents the kind of church I want to be a part of.  A church that collaborates, and listens to one another and the Spirit, and laughs.  Beautiful.  That was my second thought.

My first thought was Wow, if you put laugh first on that list rather than last – laugh, collarborate, and listen – it sounds amazingly close to the opening line of Ice Ice Baby by Vanilla Ice.  Which begins “Stop, collaborate, and listen, Ice is back with my brand new invention.”  And goes on to say, “If there was a problem, yo, I’ll solve it, check out the hook while my DJ revolves it.  Ice ice baby.  Ice ice baby.”   I spent the next couple minutes of the conversation trying to resist visualizing Gordon rapping this song.

If you did not go to middle school in the early nineties and have no idea what I’m talking about, you are missing nothing.

To belabor this digression, here’s something else:  When Vanilla Ice wrote that song he did something that was controversial and pretty new for mainstream music at the time, although it had already been happening in hip-hop for a couple decades.  Rather than come up with his own bass line, he sampled, borrowed, the bass line from the 1981 song by the band Queen, “Under Pressure.”  The line repeats throughout the whole song and goes like this.  Dun dun dun dun da dun dun.  If you went to Middle School in the early 80’s, or are a fan of classic rock, you may recognize that.  Sampling has since become more common, and involves one song borrowing, adapting, mimicking one feature of another song, mixing the old in with the new, giving the familiar a new context.  While some still see it as a form of copying or plagiarism, sampling can also be a way whereby different artists and genres of music are in conversation with one another.  It’s a way that the past is re-presented in the present through a new voice adding its own interpretation and unique flavor and thereby creating something entirely fresh.  This has no doubt been going on for musicians and artists from the very beginning as one generation borrows from one and inspires another, which in turn keeps happening through the ages.  Sampling just makes it explicitly clear what is happening.

If, by the way, this makes it sound like I know much of anything about music I want to dispel that notion right away.  I just happen to know Ice, Ice, Baby and Under Pressure, a pretty narrow selection.

I admit I have never before thought of the prophet Elijah as a hip hop artist, or Moses as a rock star, but in this passage from Kings we have a shining example of ancient Hebrew sampling, which, when you’re looking for it, actually happens all the time throughout scripture.  Bible scholars call it “intertextuality.”  Here, on Mt. Horeb, this prophet Elijah story is sampling, in conversation with the founding Hebrew prophet, Moses.   The mountain is that bass line, that connecting theme, that runs through both stories.  The latter is meant to evoke for former, only now there is a new context, a different prophet at a different time, and as we hear the story, we notice this conversation happening between the way these two prophets encounter God.

There are actually echoes all over this passage of Israel’s original and great prophet, Moses.  Elijah’s flight from Jezebel takes him on a path that basically retraces, in reverse, the path the Israelites took with Moses through the wilderness to the land of promise.  Here Elijah goes from the land back into the wilderness.  In case we miss the allusion, we are told that after receiving the miraculous gift of food and drink in the desert (think manna), Elijah travels forty days and forty nights (think 40 years).  Elijah’s destination is the same spot which was the place of origination for people of Israel.  The place where they received the gift of Torah which made them into an alternative community from the oppressive regime of Egypt, from which they were fleeing.  Slaves now freed to live under a law of justice, mercy, and Sabbath rest.  In Exodus it is called Mt. Sinai, and in Deuteronomy, a different strand of tradition, it is called Mt. Horeb.  Elijah the prophet, the one like, and unlike Moses, finds himself atop the storied Mt. Horeb seeking refuge, seeking a word of guidance from the Holy One.  It’s a case of heavy Hebrew sampling.

But the story’s not done yet.  The familiar bass line and rhythm we’re hearing is about to get a fresh twist.

For the prophet Moses, the encounter with the Holy One involved thunder and lightning, thick clouds of smoke, and an earthquake which shook the entire mountain.  Moses encounters God as utter power, almost lethal, yet just approachable enough to give words intended to shape a holy community.

But with Elijah, we have now a different genre of encounter.  The text says this: “The Lord said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’  Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.”  The King James translates that as a “still, small voice.”  In studying the passage again I noticed that this phrase could also be more literally translated as a “thin whisper.”  Elijah perceives the silence, the still small voice, the thin whisper.  This is his prophetic encounter with God.

Not only does it have a very different flavor than the Moses story, but it also presents its own commentary on the previous story, where fire falling from heaven was the sure sign of Yahweh’s dominating presence.  But now the Lord was not in the fire.  Silence had been a sign of the weakness of Baal, but now silence is presented as an opportunity of profound divine encounter.  More intertextuality.  Conversation and re-interpretation across stories and texts.   Re-presenting familiar themes with fresh meaning.

A prophet has been a speaker of powerful words and the doer of marvelous deeds.  The slightly brash, confrontational voice who speaks truth to power.  But what do we do with the prophet as the listener to silence?  The prophet as the hearer of that which cannot be detected by any audio recording device.  The prophet as the one attuned to that which is barely audible.  That’s what ultimately makes Elijah pull his cloak over his face, as if to protect himself from the sheer force of this thin whisper he has encountered.  Prophetic speech is one thing.  Prophetic listening is quite another.

In the 21st century prophethood of all believers, what is the task of the prophet?  What is the steady bass line that we sample from the past, which keeps us in rhythm with the movement of the Spirit through the ages, and what is the fresh melody which addresses the needs of the moment?

In our time of polarized shouting matches, prophetic speech has its place, but also has its limits.  Put the prophets of Baal and the prophets of Yahweh in the same room and its bound to get ugly.  Shout louder, winks Elijah.

I suggest that along with the tried and true bass line of mercy, justice, shalom, and Sabbath rest which the prophets have carried through the ages, that there’s also a much needed role for a prophethood of all believers which involves listening.  Prophetic listening.  Deep listening.  Listening to one another, listening to the other, listening below the surface to the thin whisper of the Spirit, or, the sound of sheer silence.

And – to sample another prophet so recently in your midst – not only listen, but laugh, collaborate and listen.

I have heard that there are no less than four bands represented in this congregation.  So…if any of these bands, or other musicians, poets, youth, whoever, want to have a little fun, here’s a challenge for you.  Rewrite the lyrics of Ice, Ice, Baby describing life at Columbus Mennonite Church, add your own instrumentation in the style of your choice, and present it at the church fall retreat up at Camp Luz in September.  In the spirit of collaboration, I did check with Ruth M, chair of Community Life, and she gave the OK for this.  Here’s the opening line for the song:  Laugh, collaborate and listen, CMC is here with a holy mission.  You take it from there.  Anyone who also does the Vanilla Ice dance, gets bonus points.

If you have an ear for irony, and are finding it ironic that the new pastor is highlighting the importance of silence in our listening for God and one another, all the while using words and more words to try and illustrate the point, then I don’t have much of a comeback to that.  Except to stop talking, and to invite us into a time of silence in which we practice being present to the still small voice, to welcoming the prophethood that the Spirit has for each one of us and for this congregation as a whole, and listening.

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A Parenthetical Life – 6/6/10 – 1 Kings 17, Psalm 146

 

There’s an interesting thing that the lectionary does from time to time regarding the texts to be read for the week.  Alongside one of the scripture passages that is to be read, there are sometimes parentheses that contain additional material that could be read and studied.  This week is an example of that with the 1 Kings story about the prophet Elijah and his encounter with the widow and her son in Zaraphath.  The reading, the prescribed story, is chapter 17, verses 8-16, the part where these three unlikely partners survive the drought of the land by eating from a jar of meal and a jug of oil that never run out – it always has enough for one more day’s food.  But the lectionary also gives, in parentheses, verses 17-24, a second story occurring after this when the widow’s son stops breathing and is believed to be dead.  Elijah takes the boy, restores his life, and gives him back to his mother.  This story is optional.  Not necessarily the main focus of the day – just there for study if you want to go for it.

You noticed – hopefully you noticed – that we read both stories, as well as the bit leading up to those stories that told about Elijah’s words to King Ahab about the beginning of the drought and Elijah’s survival before the waters all dried up, which led him to seek bread and water elsewhere.

I’m interested in this notion of stories that happen inside of parentheses – this idea that some stories, and also some people, are optional.  Not necessarily the main focus.  In defense of the lectionary, there’s just too much Bible to fit it all in in the three year cycle.  Way too much.  We already skip over whole chunks of scripture that didn’t make the cut.  So I’m really thinking more broadly here about situations and people in general that we consider not all that important or of consequence.   

It’s noteworthy that the overall theme of the Bible itself, one of the very core messages that we get from listening to the collective weight of all of these stories, is that the parenthetical, the marginal, those on the outskirts who never make it into the main big narratives that we might deem important, are the very people who are remembered and honored.  The ones that God holds as absolutely central to God’s care and God’s attention.

The Psalm reading for this week is Psalm 146.  It’s a Psalm about placing one’s trust in God rather than rulers or princes or mortals who are never quite as reliable as we would have hoped, and who are mortal just like everyone else, turning to dust.  Old Testament scholar Gordon Wenham writes that verses 8 and 9 of Psalm 146 are the presupposition of the entire Hebrew Scriptures:  “The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.  The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous.  The Lord watches over the sojourner; he upholds the orphan and the widow; but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.”

In other words, the presupposition of the entire Hebrew Bible, which is carried over into the New Testament, is that God loves parentheses and lives considered parenthetical to the main narrative we like to tell ourselves about what’s sigificant and what matters.  God’s eye is on the orphan, the widow, immigrant.  The hymn says, God’s eye is on the sparrow, which, tends to be a small bird.

Elijah, by any way you measure it, is not a small bird in biblical lore.  He’s one of the leading prophets of Israel who shows up at a pivotal point in the nation’s history and his legendary status has remained strong up to the present.  Part of the reason for his unique status is that according to 2 Kings, rather than dying a natural death, Elijah is swept up to heaven in a chariot of fire.  Because Elijah did not officially die, he is alive to those of us who still walk the earth in significant and often unpredictable ways.  The prophet Malachi, prophesying hundreds of years after Elijah and included as the last book of our Old Testament, proclaims “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”  Jewish belief still holds that before the Messiah comes, Elijah will be sent to prepare the way.  In New Testament times there were already clear expectations that Elijah would come to do this.  Multiple times Jesus is asked if he is Elijah, and it is the Christian understanding the John the Baptist was the one who came in the Spirit of Elijah to prepare the way for Jesus.  There are numerous Jewish fables about the prophet Elijah coming to visit the Jewish people and give them instruction or perform a miracle or send a message.  During contemporary practices of the Passover Seder there is a cup of wine dedicated to Elijah and toward the end of the Seder the door is opened as an invitation for Elijah to come. 

It’s a wonderful mystical kind of tradition, that the prophet is still speaking – with some parallels to our understanding of Christ still speaking and appearing at unexpected times. 

In the Bible, the books of 1 and 2 Kings where he appears, Elijah is a part of the prophetic tradition that was finding its voice in Israel.  The original hope for the people of Israel was that they would be a people set apart, not like the other nations.  Rather than having a king, they would give their allegiance to their God who had delivered them from the bondage of slavery in Egypt, brought them through the wilderness, and given them the Torah, the teaching of the covenant.  But Israel wanted a king to lead them into battle so God grants that they can have a king.  And with the rise of the kingship in Israel, also comes the rise of the prophet, those individuals who would keep the king accountable to his job description – executing justice through fairness, protecting the most vulnerable – the widow, the orphan, the stranger.  The king and the prophet were sort of the people of Israel’s version of checks and balances in government.  The kings rarely lived up to their role and the prophets, if they were faithful prophets speaking for God, would always let him have it. 

When Elijah does appear in the Bible, in the time of King Ahab, it is rather out of the blue.  With no warning or background or prelude given, we are told, “Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, ‘As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except at my word.’”  Elijah’s sudden and fairly unorthodox burst onto the scene reminds me a little bit of Seinfeld episodes when Kramer famously bursts through the door and announces his often uninvited presence. 

Elijah is a star in the biblical memory, but the focus on him rather than the person of the king Ahab is already a shift toward the margins.  The word of the Lord is rarely found coming out of the king’s palace.  Instead, it’s out of the mouth of this prophet from nowhere who spends his days living by a river bed getting fed by birds.

And then, the river bed dries up and the birds stop coming.  So, as the prescribed text of the day says, “Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying, ‘Go now to Zaraphath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’”  Lest we be taken in by this struggle between the titans – the mighty king Ahab and the powerful prophet Elijah, the narrative shifts to the hinterlands, outsidethe border of Israel, beyond Ahab’s jurisdiction and beyond Elijah’s typical prophetic stomping grounds.  In order to be sustained, he will depend on the hospitality of a foreign widow and her son.

In a patriarchal society, widows were especially vulnerable.  Without a husband to economically care for them, they depended on other males in their extended family to ensure their security.  This widow is apparently without any kind of social safety net at all.  The draught has reached into her land and she is collecting a few sticks to make a fire to make a meal for her and her son in what she believes will be a last supper for them.  It’s a devastating kind of scene, almost hopeless.  I can’t imagine a more desperate feeling than not being able to provide food for your own child.

When Elijah meets her, it’s a surprising exchange.  Being the famous man of God that he is, one might expect her to ask him for some food to keep her and her son alive another day.  But instead Elijah asks her for a handout, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.”  Not happy with just water, while she going to get it, he says, and “bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.”  What’s going on here?  Maybe this was the common expectation of hospitality to strangers in the ancient near east, but Elijah seems to be a little out of line expecting this widow to take care of his needs.  On the other hand, unlike the way we do most charity work these days, Elijah doesn’t burst onto the scene like a messiah and give her everything he thinks she needs.  He’s the one asking to be saved.  He invites her to share whatever resources that she may have, even if it’s just a morsel. 

She tells him about the last supper part, that she expects to die soon and her son with her, but does share part of her little cake that she has made.  That’s when they all start to experience the miracle of the little bit of meal never running out and the little bit of oil never drying up.  They always have just enough to sustain them through the drought.  God provides for this mighty prophet and this unnamed widow and her unnamed son.

This is a story that we read and shared at Jan Abel’s memorial service last October.  Jan wasn’t a widow but she did experience a lot of the losses of this widow and she was the kind of person who gave what she had, even when it was very little, and she always had just enough.  One of my favorite stories with her was when Judy Vander Henst was visiting her in the hospital after Jan had been diagnosed with cancer.  They talked and prayed and Judy was about to go when Jan called the nurse into the room and asked her to bring her some shampoo.  The nurse brought the shampoo, left the room, and then Jan gave Judy the shampoo as a thank you gift for having been with her.  So Jan would find something to give, even if she didn’t have anything to give.  She assured Judy that this wasn’t stealing.  It’s OK she said, you just take it, it’s for you.  I had similar types of experiences being with Jan and visiting her and Stan when they were living in the tent on the tracks just a couple blocks from here.  I understand Jan’s generosity and her difficult life as being parenthetical to the forward march of civilization, but absolutely central to the loving heart of God, the story that God is writing for the world which is based on such things as gratitude and generosity.

The parenthetical widow and Elijah story, the optional one, happens on the heels of this other one.  The boy’s life has been saved, but, tragically, he becomes ill and, as the text says, “his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him.”  Here’s a chance where we could exult the prophet for his role.  Elijah takes the boy, cries out in prayer, “stretched himself upon the child three times,” which sounds like some ancient form of CPR, and the boy is revived.  God, through Elijah has saved the boys life twice, first from famine and now from illness.  Heidi Neumark, who pastored a church in a poverty stricken neighborhood in the Bronx, makes an interesting comment here.  She says:  “We could say that Elijah, the male prophet, does this and therefore deserves the spotlight in the lectionary text. After all, he raises someone from the dead. But the widow raises a child–without a husband, without a safety net, without welfare or workfare. She does it in a time of idolatrous national arrogance, famine and drought. Raising the dead requires a single act of trust and prayer from Elijah. Raising a child requires countless acts of trust and many prayers, especially for a single mother.”

So again, we are being taught to see God at the periphery, in the parentheses, the part not always clearly visible, but always the story behind the story.  Rather than allowing a single miracle to capture our awe, we are in awe of the way we are witnesses to God’s abiding presence to sustain people’s spirits in their striving and struggle to stay alive, and keep others whom they love alive.  

I guess it’s a little ironic that we have a story about the miraculous continual flow of oil during a week when the real miracle we were all hoping for was that the continual flow of oil be stopped.  If Elijah were to make one of his famous unexpected appearances right now we’d ask him to do a reversal of the miracle for the widow and her son, do some deep sea diving and put a stop to the gush of oil making its way into the gulf.  It would have a similar effect of protecting those most vulnerable, including the wildlife of the area, and adding to the flourishing of life. 

But we know that even if an Elijah were able to stop the flow of oil at this point, it would not be our complete salvation.  The Messiah would not have come.  We would still have a lot of work to do, a lot of clean up, a lot of time to nurse the gulf back to health, a lot of soul searching to do for how to prevent these kinds of things from happening in the future and maybe, just maybe, asking ourselves once again how dependent we really want to be on fossil fuels.  In many ways it is still a story of thousands and millions of unnamed lives, struggling to survive, doing what they can to care for the people and land that they love.     

I’m grateful for those whose powerful minds and powerful positions help them do great things.  I’m also grateful that in the eyes of God, there is no such thing as a parenthetical life.  Someone who is optional to the wellbeing of the world.  Someone whose struggle to keep alive and nurture the ones they love will be forgotten.  God’s eye is on the sparrow, the fish in the gulf, the Jan Abels of the world, and those of us who ever wonder if we have anything of value to contribute to the grand human narrative, which is, really, all of us.  Thanks be to God.

A Little River that Heals – 2,18,07

One of the first weeks I was here in Cincinnati I got a call in the church office from a woman wondering if the church could offer her some help.  She had diabetes and was in need of a monitor and test strips.  After talking with her for a bit to try and better understand her situation, I got her phone number and told her I would do some looking around to see if this was something we could help her with.  Knowing very little about diabetes and even less about where to find a monitor and test strips in this new city I was living in, I sent out a few emails to CMF people who I thought may be able to point me in the right direction.  From the responses, I gathered that monitors are pretty easy to get a hold of and are often given out for free at clinics or pharmacies, but test strips are more expensive.  Since the church office is located right across from a CVS, I decided to walk over and see if they would give me a free monitor and a discount on test strips.  I introduced myself to the woman behind the counter as pastor of the Mennonite church across the street, told her briefly about the need of the woman who had called the office, and mentioned that I was under the impression that pharmacies sometimes offer monitors  for free.  She was very nice, but said she couldn’t do this unless I would write a letter to CVS headquarters for them to authorize the gift.  I told her that didn’t sound like a very good option.  She agreed, and then mentioned that the companies that make the monitors themselves might be able to help.  She showed me their most popular monitor, pointed out the 1-800 number on the back, and wished me good luck.  Needless to say, I was a little skeptical calling a 1-800 number of a company asking them to send me one of their products for free.  A gentleman answered on the other line.  I told him about the situation, and asked if he could send me a free monitor.  He said, yes, he could do that.  He would be able to make a one time gift to the address where I wanted it sent.  I gave him the church address and asked if he could include some free test strips with the monitor.  He said they usually don’t include test strips, but that he could include enough to last a couple weeks.  I thanked him and he said the package should arrive in a couple days.  The next day a package came to the office with the company name on the label.  I called the woman, told her the story, and she came by the office that day to pick up the package.

           

 Behind this story with a nice and tidy happy ending is the not-so-nice and quite untidy reality of the struggle for affordable, quality health care access in our country.  I’m happy that this chain of events led to this woman receiving what she needed for the immediate time being.  I’m thankful for this corporation’s generosity.  It was a gift for me to be able to hand this woman the package, look her in the eye, and say ‘God bless you’ and hear her say “Thank you so much, God bless you.”  But the other side to situations like this is the feeling of being a very small, nearly insignificant actor, in this huge complex system.  To borrow a phrase from Abbie’s Grandpa Marlin, this small act of charity felt sort of ‘like spittin’ into a forest fire.’  

 

In 2005, at the bi-annual assembly of Mennonite Church USA, our denomination continued discussion and action around addressing the health care crisis in our nation.  One of the actions was to adopt a Healthcare Access statement.  Here are some excerpts from this statement:

 As followers of Jesus Christ we seek to provide love and care to all people. Our concern for the healthcare system is rooted in our desire to be disciples of Jesus. We grieve that our present healthcare system suffers from complexity, greed, racism, fear of death, and lack of concern for the common good. Healthcare, in the biblical tradition of shalom, promotes and improves the physical and mental well-being of persons, families, and communities. While we applaud impressive advances in medical technology and treatment that have done much to cure disease and ease suffering, we contend that healthcare in the United States is unjustly distributed, broken, and unsustainable. We respond to God’s love by service in all areas of life. So we must assist and prod ourselves, our congregations, our institutions, and our government to care for all people as together we work to promote health and relieve suffering in the name of Christ.  This last sentence outlines the way that the Mennonite church is working to approach healthy living – with four concentric circles of focus.  “So we must assist and prod ourselves, our congregations, our institutions, and our government to care for all people.”  Part of the message here is the good news that our denomination is choosing to join together with other voices in calling for structural change to the national health care system.  Another part of the message is recognizing that there are ways that each congregation can take it upon themselves to be healing agents of God in their own settings.   One of the ways this congregation has chosen to respond to this call is the formation of the Health Care Task Force that Beth described.  As this group has met together, we have begun asking some questions about how we can be a healing community.  How can we encourage each other to live healthier lives?  How can we be channels of God’s healing to one another in this congregation?  How can we help neighbors in need access resources already present in the city to address health concerns?  In the face of this huge system that we call health care, What part can our congregation play in God’s healing work in the world?   In looking through the story of Naaman and Elisha for some different images of what our work is like, I find a couple different characters to identify with, neither of them being Naaman or Elisha.  Naaman appears to believe that healing is something like magic.  V. 11 is a rather humorous telling of his expectations for how healing happens.  “I thought that for me he would surely come out and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy.”  It sounds to me that Naaman has been watching a little too much of the preacher channel.  Not that God can’t act suddenly, but it’s usually not in the abra-cadabra, hokus-pokus way that Naaman was hoping for.  And I’m not real sure that Elisha offers us much as a model for a healer.  Being the compassionate, thoughtful, pastoral type of prophet that he was, he stays back in his office when Naaman comes to visit and sends someone else out with a message.  No doubt he was engrossed in sermon preparation for the upcoming Sunday.            One of the characters who shows us how to be healing people is the Israelite servant girl, otherwise known as the maid.  She knew that she didn’t have all the resources to help Naaman receive healing, but she was aware of someone who could help him.  And she spoke up in a way that helped connect the one in need with the professional healer.  Without the servant girl Naaman would never have known to come to Elisha.            This is along the lines of what we have had in mind in creating the directory of local resources.  We hope that we can connect people in need with people and institutions who are trained as healers.  The opening story that I shared would be a small example of connecting a person in need with something that can serve her health.  We also want to be able to connect with each other’s different gifts.  If there are ways that we can serve each other with the gifts and training that we have, we want to be able for those connections to be made and for that to be a part of how we relate together in Christian community.The other character, if you can call it a character, in the story of Naaman and Elisha that can inform our identity as a healing community is the Jordan River.  The little trickle of water closer to a creek than a large river.  If God could heal Naaman through seven dunks in the muddy little river Jordan, then God can certainly use our congregation as a place of healing.  This means that the very act of being a part of a community of faith can be a channel of God’s healing.  What if, if friends or acquaintances come to us with emotional and spiritual brokenness, we would invite, not seven dunks in the Jordan river, although that would be funny, but seven months, or seven years of being a part of a fellowship that loves and supports you for who you are.  A group of people who are channels of God’s love that washes over wounds and slowly, slowly enables healing to take place.  That’s the kind of community God is calling us to be.     There was a recent article written about a young woman by the name of Jamie who is a member of Albuquerque Mennonite Church in New Mexico.  In her late teens she began experiencing hallucinations and while she was in college she was diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder.  She talks about the difficulty that her friends and classmates had with adjusting to her new condition.  But she says this about her congregation: “From my experience, I still very much felt the presence of the church.  I could be sick there.  The church let that be OK.”The church can be a place where it’s OK to be sick.  We don’t expect one dunk in this river to magically change anyone.  We are allowed to just be in the middle of the river and let that be OK.  

            Although I wasn’t here at the time, I’ve heard the story told of when Dean Dinlinger, a former member of this congregation, was diagnosed with leukemia, and requested that people from the church come and sing in his hospital room.  And a group went and sang hymns with him.  I find this a beautiful picture of letting God’s presence in our singing wash over each other and bring comfort and healing. 

            To repeat a couple lines from the 2005 Health Care Access statement:

Healthcare, in the biblical tradition of shalom, promotes and improves the physical and mental well-being of persons, families, and communities. We contend that healthcare in the United States is unjustly distributed, broken, and unsustainable. We respond to God’s love by service in all areas of life. So we must assist and prod ourselves, our congregations, our institutions, and our government to care for all people as together we work to promote health and relieve suffering in the name of Christ.

            This is ongoing work, and we are not alone.  Other denominations and faith traditions, as well as people and organizations not associated with a faith tradition, are calling for a reformation in how our country manages health care.    

            We have the gift of this faith community as a starting place for seeking to live healthy lives.  We place our faith in the God that Jesus said works like a mustard seed, small beginnings that blossom out to be shade and a refuge for those who pass by.  Our God is a god of servants connecting those in need with those who have gifts and resources for healing.  Our God uses smalls rivers that flow with compassion and comfort and joins them together with other rivers.  May we hear God’s call to be a community of healing.

   


 

From its very beginning, the church has had the practice of anointing with oil those who are in need of healing.  To paraphrase the epistle of James, “are any among you seeking healing?  They should come before the faith community, and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the One who heals.  The prayer of faith is a channel for God’s healing presence.”

We would like to have a time of anointing for those who would wish to receive it.  You are invited to come forward if there is something in your own life for which you seek healing, and you are also invited to come forward on behalf of someone you care for who is in need of healing.  You’re welcome to share briefly about your concern or to simply receive the anointing.  This is not an act of magic, but a sign of God’s Spirit which is present among us to heal and to restore.  And while this is happening the congregation will be praying in the form of singing. 

Two Widows, Two Windows into Mission – 11,12,06

One of my favorite past times is people watching.  This is quite fun and can be done just about anywhere.  Parks, airports, museums, restaurants, wherever.  It requires no equipment and can be rather entertaining and educational.  The important first step for successful people watching is having a place to sit down with a decent view.  After that it’s simple – just watch and see what you see.  Depending on what’s going on in my life, different people catch my attention.  I always think it’s funny to watch people who are in a hurry, especially when they’re trying to multi-task with talking on the cell phone while speed walking while looking at their watch while trying to avoid everyone who is in their way.  It makes me wonder if that person is really important, or if they’re just habitually late, or if they’re just habitually busy and if so if they wish they could slow down.  I like to watch how people interact with their environment.  Are they engrossed in reading the newspaper?  Are they in an engaging conversation with someone beside them?  Are they looking around at their surroundings?  Occasionally, in looking around an area for a while I make eye contact for a second or third time with the same person who is sitting across the way, and I realize that they are people watching too.  Even watching people watch people can be interesting, it just gets a little uncomfortable if you’re watching each other at the same time.  More recently I’ve been paying closer attention to parents.  How do they interact with their kids?  How are the kids responding to them?  How are the parents relating to each other as they go along?  Everyone should take time to people watch every once in a while.

 

            In Mark 12:41 it says “Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury.”  This would be the treasury in the temple in Jerusalem.  Jesus had been in the temple for several days now.  After some intense conversations with the scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees, what better way to clear your mind than kicking back for some good ole’ people watching in the temple.  Mark goes on to describe what Jesus observed.  “Many rich people came and put in large sums.  A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.”  Hmmm.  One of the lessons of people watching is that there are many ways of describing people.  People are tall, short, old, young, hyper, calm, etc.  The gospels are very conscious of people’s class and power status.  Jesus sees “rich people” and he sees “poor widow.”  And it is the poor widow who stands out to him.  She is the one out of this whole crowd who catches his attention.  “Then Jesus called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.  For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’”

            We often read this as if Jesus is praising the widow.  She is righteous in her utter devotion to God and Jesus is pointing her out as a positive example to his disciples.  Now, this is quite possible, and quite within the norms of people watching.  It is good to watch people to look for ones that display some trait you would like to imitate.  This is certainly part of what is going on here.  But I believe there is much more going on.  If we are to take the rest of Mark’s gospel into account and the statements immediately preceding this incident, the tone in Jesus’ voice here is much more that of lament.  The very sentence before this instance Jesus has been talking to his disciples warning them against the scribes who are consumed with honor and social power.  V. 40 “They devour widows houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.”  Jesus is most likely referring to widows having their properties and possessions confiscated by the religious leaders, who would claim it as a gift to God and God’s temple, which they, of course, would use for their own gain.  After their husbands died widows were among the most economically vulnerable people of society, especially if they had no man close of kin to be their guardian.  The people who held the power over the economic sacrificial system, which was all one system known as the temple, pounced on those with little power in order to gain all that much more power for themselves.  Jesus uses the harsh language “devour,” like predatory creatures tearing apart their prey.

Only days before Jesus had entered this very temple and called it a den of robbers, symbolically stopping the flow of commerce for a short time to demonstrate that he was putting the system on alert that it’s time was drawing to a close.  In the very next setting after this story with the widow Jesus’ disciples are marveling at the larger than life size and beauty of the temple.  Jesus replies that the whole temple will soon be thrown down.  That political/economic/religious system was on its way out and a new system was on its way in, a new community that welcomes those with little power.  The kind of community that we begin to see described in the book of Acts.           

Archbishop Dom Helder Camara of Brazil once said, “I gave bread to the poor and they called me a saint.  I asked why the poor had no bread and they called me a communist.” 

Jesus has the courage to ask why this woman is poor, and his answer is essentially she has been taken under in an unjust system.  And then the woman is still under the sway of the system as the supposed gateway to God.  She is still expected to give to the temple treasury to remain in good standing before God. 

 

            Hear the words of Jesus now as a lament: “For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

 

What kind of window into mission does this story give us?  Put another way, how does people watching with Jesus help us see deeply into the world, and how does this way of seeing affect how we act?  Jesus teaches us where to look and he teaches us how to look, and then what to do with what we see.  When we sit with Jesus we are taught to notice those with little power.  The Scriptures repeat this time and time again to the point of being redundant.  Pay attention to the poor, the weak, the hurting.  And then instead of becoming sentimental about the virtues of the poor, we are taught to look beyond the individual to the structures and systems that that person is a part of.  We lament the failings of these systems and we work to make them right.  And we welcome this person into the structure that the church is working to become. 

 

            There is another widow who gives us another important window into mission, the widow of Zarephath that Elijah met.  Just in case we would ever begin to believe that mission is about us helping them, this story sets up straight.  Here it is Elijah, the great prophet of God, hungry and thirsty, seeking food from a poor widow.  The poor widow believes she has nothing to offer him, she doesn’t even have anything to offer herself or her son.  It is, after all, a famine.  She is preparing for a Last Supper of sorts, and says to Elijah, “I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”  What an awful situation.  No bread for guests, no bread for yourself, and no bread for your own child.  The twist to this story is a twist that opens up a new world of possibilities.  Elijah decides to cast his lot with the widow.  They will share in the same fate.  And he believes that if she will give what she has, there will be enough for now and there will continue to be enough.  Notice how completely different this is than Elijah saying that he is going to help the woman and her child get the food that she needs — Elijah the missionary coming to feed the poor.  This is Elijah the poor coming to be fed by this missionary and her son and the missionary and her son learning that they have an abundance of wealth they never knew they had.  This was a foreign land for Elijah.  Zarephath was not in Israel.  He was wondering onto to someone else’s turf, fully recognizing the he was the one who needed to receive.  And there is some kind of thing from God that happens in the middle of all this so that everyone is given what they need.  “The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil run out.”

            This is the lesson of every person doing what is often called short term missions.  You receive so much more than you give.  Several of you have told me about your experiences along these lines with voluntary service and other service opportunities.  We fool ourselves if we think we are the Messiahs coming to save the world.  We learn that we are just as much in need of saving as anyone.

            And for long term missions, as in ministering in the community where we live and work and where this church building is located, it’s about forming relationships where we all learn to receive from each other.  If we aren’t allowing ourselves to receive in mission, the jar of meal will run out.  We will get burned out from giving and giving, not realizing there is a whole flow of giving and receiving there for us.  The idea is that we have to come to terms with being just as poor as anyone we are trying to serve.  We are poor in joy, poor in community, starving for meaning and connectedness. 

            Folks who study congregations and make charts and diagrams and all that good stuff about what church should be all about often say that the church is really about three things.  Worship, Community, Mission.  We honor God, we nurture and teach each other, and we reach out and share our faith.  This makes mission 1/3 of what the church is all about.  We are, by definition of what Jesus has established us to be, to have a good portion of our energy be outward focused.    

            And I’m thinking these widows might help point the way for us.  Mission is often mistaken as simply charity, giving some things to people who need help. The first widow shows us that people are often caught in unjust systems that keep them in a never ending cycle of poverty and powerlessness.  Mission is often mistaken as a one way street, the haves helping the have nots.  The second widow and Elijah show us that when each is giving what they have to offer, God blesses the relationship and allows for the flow back and forth to fulfill everyone.  Both widows have something to give us, and we have something to give both widows.

            The sermon illustrations are coming from you all this morning.  There are a number of ways you all work at mission.  And we have asked several of you involved in leading these works to share briefly about what you are doing.  We want this to be a time of really claiming all of these ministries as a part of the life of all of us at CMF.  What we will do is have someone speak about what they are involved with and after each time we will speak this refrain printed in your bulletins.  “We are Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship, and we are committed to God’s mission in the world.”  After all five people have spoken I will close with a prayer of blessing.  

 

We are Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship, and we are committed to God’s mission in the world.

Please stand and receive this prayer of blessing:

Prayer

We bless all the ministries of this congregation and give thanks for the good work that they have done.  We give thanks for all of the time and energy, creativity and prayer that have gone into these works.  We are thankful for the lives that have been touched and changed – for the ways those with little power are being offered more power, for the ways systems are being challenged to be more just.  Loving God, continue to provide strength and vision for those who are in leadership in these ministries.  We pray for an outbreak of compassion and an epidemic of love to sweep across us as we look for ways to increase our witness to your reign of peace.  All these things we pray in the name and spirit of our elder brother Jesus Christ, who taught us how to see and how to love, AMEN.   

 

Remain standing for Sing the Journey #61 How can we be silent

Elijah’s Fire and Jesus’ Bread – 8,20,06

Elijah was in a difficult line of work.  His job description read something like this:  1.  applicant will frequently confront most powerful person of the nation with news that will make him want to kill you  2. must be willing to sit alone by a river for several years in a row getting fed by birds  3. must be willing to live with strangers who have hardly any food.  Advised to pray that food doesn’t out  4.  must be able win duals with other prophets when outnumbered 450 to 1 5. must be able to receive revolutionary insights from God and communicate these clearly and concisely to a nation that doesn’t care.

Your average prophet lived with high stress and horrible pay.  This is probably why people became prophets by appointment and not choice.  This was not a job little Israelite kids dreamed of having when they grew up. 

In today’s reading, we meet up with Elijah at the low point of his career.  After several years of working miracles, touring the nation, and sticking it to the king, this was the point where he was supposed to take a year off, go on a retreat, and write a book about how to be a successful prophet in today’s changing world.  Instead, we find Elijah taking a retreat into the desert, or rather, retreating into the desert, flopped under the only tree in sight.  And he doesn’t just want to quit his job, he wants to die.  He’s saying to God, ‘kill me now.’  ‘Take me out of this whole game.’  ‘I’m worthless, no better than my ancestors.’  ‘I’m going to lay down and go to sleep for the last time.’

You know, one of the things I like about the Scriptures is that there is so little attempt to gloss over the ugliness and difficultness of life.  If you’re trying to build the confidence of people the prevailing theory goes that you show your leaders to be strong, solid as a rock, completely confident in themselves and their ideas.  But if you’re looking for that kind of hero in the Bible you’re going to be disappointed.  Faithful Abraham and Sara were full of fear and doubt.  The patriarch Jacob and his mom Rebecca were liars.  The great law giver Moses was a murderer.  King David was an adulterer and murderer.  The prophet Jonah was a rebel who couldn’t learn a lesson about God’s compassion.  The mighty prophet Elijah was, it appears, given to depression and suicidal thoughts.  Everybody is a mixed bag, all stumbling around through life, sometimes faithful, sometimes being a real jerk, sometimes just wanting to check out and call it quits.

450 versus 1.  What are the odds?  Who would even go into a contest with this kind of competition?  After years of drought Elijah had actually initiated a showdown between the prophets of the rain god Baal and himself, the prophet of the Lord.  And he had won.  They were dancing around on their altar trying to make fire come down from heaven, but nothing had happened.  But when Elijah prayed fire fell down from heaven and consumed everything on the altar.  That was the test to see whose God was more powerful.  Not only did Elijah win, but he slaughtered the other team.  Yeah, he actually slaughtered them.  Killed all 450 of them.  A public victory for Elijah and his powerful God.  Nothing like a little fire from heaven to convince the masses which God they should follow.

Jesus said “I am the bread of life that came down from heaven.”  Don’t go after food that rots.  Your real life is in the Source of the bread, the One I’m calling my Father in heaven.  I’m showing you what you need, what you’re pursuing.  That bread is God’s very self offered to you and I have become that bread for you. 

The people who were listening complained because he said he was bread come down from heaven.  How can he say he has come down from heaven? 

Elijah’s great victory happened right before Elijah sauntered off into the desert wanting to die.  And here’s what happened right after:  He was up on a high mountain, and he heard a voice telling him, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”  I’m reading right out of 1 Kings 19:11.  “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind.  And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence, a still small voice.  When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.”  The Lord was not in the fire.  

I thought the Lord just came as fire.  I thought the great victory of Elijah over the evil prophets was a display of God’s power.  I thought the fire from heaven was from heaven; the fire of the Lord.  That devouring fire that destroys God’s enemies and proves God’s supremacy.  But Elijah discovered, the Lord was not in the fire.

Through Elijah, we are witnessing one of the important discoveries of the scriptures.  Before, it was perceived that God was in the fire.  Now, Elijah learns that God was not in the fire.  So, according to this, What is it that comes down from heaven?  The answer seems to be Not Fire.

 It is a crucial insight, and doesn’t get worked out completely for centuries, still hasn’t really gotten worked out.  People are still attributing earthquakes and windstorms and fires to the hand of God.  Elijah’s insight is that God was not in the fire and we’re left with a kind of void of where God is.  If God isn’t in the fire that destroyed our enemies, then where is God?  If the zeal behind those slaughterings of the rain god prophets wasn’t the zeal of the Lord, then what are we left with? 

Jesus said “I am the bread of life that came down from heaven.”  Don’t go after food that rots.  Your real life is in the Source of the bread, the One I’m calling my Father in heaven.  I’m showing you what you need, what you’re pursuing.  That bread is God’s very self offered to you and I have become that bread for you. 

The people who were listening complained because he said he was bread come down from heaven.  How can he say he has come down from heaven? 

Elijah in the desert who wants to die is the Elijah in between fire from heaven and not fire from heaven; and it is a dark place under that lonely tree.  He just defeated the prophets of Baal, but he has not yet had his revelation of the God who lives in the silence.  He was the rock star, his show complete with charisma and pyrotechnics.  The champion of the masses who believe he is the greatest; the undisputed leader of the good guys.  But a few hours after the show, it all starts to fall apart in his mind.  Now he huddles in isolation away from the stage and wishes to die; He says, “It is enough.  Now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”  Something rings hollow in this public victory.  It was booking itself as the new show in town, the greatest spectacle for everyone to see, proof of the greatness of the Lord of Israel, but in his own mind Elijah knew different.  This was just a rerun, the same old show his ancestors had always been putting on.  The same old show of brute force and vengeance on enemies.  Elijah had won the magic show and then killed all his opponents.  Surely that should be in the job description of a prophet of the Lord.  That had always been the script.  Elijah wants to die because he knows he is no better than his ancestors.  Somewhere he knew that the real job description of a prophet of the Lord is one who reveals the truth about the justice and steadfast love of the God of Israel who is the Lord of all nations. 

He discovered who God was not, and he discovered that his failures made him no different than anyone else.  It was good for Elijah to be learning these things, but when all you thought you knew gets stripped away and you’re left with pretty much nothing, it looks for a short time like there’s nothing left to do except go to sleep.  There’s simply nothing left of the life you thought you knew.  And there’s no longer any way to control God or your own life.

What is it that comes down from heaven?  We know this is a contested question.  All sorts of actions get attributed to God, including very harmful things like deaths, sicknesses, tragedies, wars…windstorm, earthquake, and fire.  From the mouths of  friends, family members, politicians, OK, and preachers – everybody has certain things they believe are coming down out of heaven.  Given the options, sometimes we might be tempted to think that if this is where all this God talk is leading us, maybe we should just drop it altogether.  Does anything really come to us from heaven anyway?  For Elijah at this time in his journey, he only knows what doesn’t come from the God of heaven.  Not windstorm, not earthquake, and Not fire.

This is the point where the words of Jesus are most pertinent to us. 

  Jesus said, I am the bread of life, come down from heaven, to do the will of the One who sent me.  What comes down from heaven is like bread, bread of life, and it looks a whole lot like a human being who does the will of God.  And Jesus is saying I am that bread.  This is hard for the people to hear, because, well, there is a person saying they are coming down from heaven.  This sounds a bit like another rock star scenario complete with smoke and mirrors, this time with the hero dropping out of the sky onto the stage.  But Jesus points the people somewhere else.  He says “It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’  Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.”  You shall all be taught by God.  This bread thing from heaven is universally available to you all.  That’s the whole point.  Its not meant to be possessed by a special elite.  The prophets say it themselves.  You all have access to the Source of Bread.  Jesus is making this available.  In his body, the prophet who speaks and the bread that strengthens have become one.  This bread is for the life of the world.  Its not death and destruction that come out of heaven.  It’s the bread of justice, the bread of healing, the bread of reconciliation, the bread of life that leads to more life.  And the one who does the will of God is the one who comes to know this.  And the will of God is that the whole world have abundant life.

            The broad movement of these texts moves us between two poles.  On the one side is the place of isolation in the wilderness, the place where we wish for death, the place where we feel nothing but failure and self-loathing, that place where God looks more like a void than a presence. 

The other side is Jesus’ statement that “they shall all be taught by God.”  The ever present availability of the life-giving presence of the Father and Mother of all.  Bread given for the life of the whole world.  Jesus, bridging heaven and earth, offering himself out to us as the gift of God to a hungry world. 

            We live in between those two poles.  Ready to lay down and fall asleep forever, and ready to embrace the whole world with God’s zeal for life.  There is space here for us to be at whatever point between them.  And Jesus is always there with us, offering bread from God.   

The hymn we have been singing says “All who hunger, sing together, Jesus Christ is living bread.  Come from loneliness and longing.  Here in peace we have been led.  Blest are those who from this table live their days in gratitude.  Taste and see the grace eternal.  Taste and see that God is good.”

In the desert, Elijah asked that he may die.  But instead of death, he was given bread.  Its just bread, but its just what he needs to go on, to go on to the next phase of his journey.  Jesus is the bread of life who comes from heaven to us.  May we receive the bread of life, God’s very self, the source of all life.