FIRST LESSON: I Kings 19:1-5a
SECOND LESSON Galatians 3:23-29
SERMON: “Comfort Food”
According to an old legend, God sent one of his angels to Satan one day with the message that all the methods the devil uses to defeat Christians would be taken away from him. The devil pleaded to be allowed to keep just one. The angel, thinking it an unusual, but rather modest request from the greedy devil, agreed Satan could keep one. “Which one would you want to keep?” the angel asked. “Let me keep discouragement,” was the devil’s reply. The angel agreed. Satan could keep discouragement. And the devil rejoiced for, said he, “In this one I have secured all I shall ever need to accomplish my dastardly work.”
How about you? Do you ever feel discouraged?
In today’s reading from I Kings, we read about the Prophet Elijah’s bout with discouragement. Elijah was one of the greatest of the prophets written about in the Hebrew Bible.
Today’s lesson is the story of Elijah’s flight which is part of a much larger set of stories about the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Elijah is one of the towering figures in the history of the Hebrew people.
The context for today’s lesson is drawn from the dominant theme of the Elijah-Elisha stories, namely, the prophetic opposition to royal apostasy and abuse of power. As the story begins we learn that Ahab, regarded by the writer of the book of Kings as one of Israel’s worst rulers, told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, referring to Elijah’s defeat and slaughter of the priests of Baal.
Jezebel, a name synonymous with the powerful, ruthless seductress, was Ahab’s wife. Her influence on Israelite religion and history of the ninth century B.C., as royal patroness of the cult of Baal was enormous, and her power was such that even Elijah, a formidable figure in his own right and the chief advocate for Israel’s traditional faith, feared her – with good reason. She threatened to do to him what he had done to the prophets of Baal.
Understandably, Elijah was afraid for his life and went on the run. He got as far as Beersheba and leaving his servant there, he went a day’s journey into the wilderness, where he sat down under a broom bush and prayed for death.
This passage is the only place in my life where I have encountered or read about a “broom bush,” So I looked it up and learned that broom bushes include a whole host of plants, which thrive best in poor soils and growing conditions. They need little care, with the exception that they need good drainage – don’t do so well in wet soils. Whenever I read this passage in the past, my literal mind had pictured either a tree that sported ‘brooms,’ or a bush that somehow looked like a broom, but pictures of broom bushes actually show something a lot like many other kinds of bushes, sporting some lovely yellow flowers.
There’s got to be some symbolism going on here, because references indicate that brooms tolerate and often thrive best in poor soils and growing conditions. Widely used as ornamental landscape plants, they are also used for wasteland reclamation and sand dune stabilizing. They are also said to be a “fire climax” species, which means that above-ground fires may kill the visible part of the plant, but create conditions for regrowth from the roots and for germination of any seeds buried in the soil. Elijah found a place to collapse and hide under a basically indestructible bush.
As he prays for death to come, the word of the LORD came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He replied, “I have been working my heart out for God. The people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed the places of worship and murdered your prophets. I’m the only one left, and they’re trying to
kill me.” Discouragement – big time.
When Elijah first fell asleep, exhausted, under the broom bush, an angel shook him awake and he found a loaf of bread to eat and a jug of water to drink. Still exhausted, he took another nap. Again when he was awakened, he found another meal to eat. Then, following instructions he traveled to Horeb, the mountain of God, and found a cave to sleep in.
Reading about all this sleeping and eating and instructions from and angel, reminded me of something that I learned a long time ago from some 12-step folks: HALT. God advice for all of us. Never make big decisions or take drastic actions when you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired. We earthlings don’t do our best when the blood sugar is too low. You can write that e-mail when you’re angry, if it helps to “get it out” of your system, but don’t hit “send” until the anger has passed. Loneliness and fatigue foster depression and poor decisions. There’s wisdom in the old adage when you are dealing with major stuff to “sleep on it.” Things really do look different after a night of rest.
I suppose we all have our favorite biblical characters. Today many of us can identify with Elijah. We’ve given it everything we had in us to serve God, and we get tired, burned out. We’d like to go take a long nap under a broom tree somewhere.
The week before last was a refreshing one for me as I got to visit with my son and family, and meet baby Kellan, who once he gets his days and nights straightened around will be the best baby. My son and I chatted about a lot of things, and I was a bit surprised at one moment to hear him say that, considering the way things seem to be going, he wondered if it really was such a good idea to bring a child into this mess of a world. But it wasn’t long before hope re-entered the conversation and Paul said, “Maybe Kellan will be someone who brings something important, something needed into the world.” Discouragement and hope expressed within moments of each other. That’s the tension we all live in.
I feel much the same way as Moderator of our Presbytery’s Committee on Preparation for Ministry. I wonder if we are doing Inquirers and Candidates any favors by shepherding them through the training process to become ordained clergy. Then when we meet with them, and we get to hear their passion for caring for people and sharing the gospel, I become hopeful that one or two or several of them will impact the world where they serve with the love of God and compassion of Christ our Lord.
Today, as a pastor, I can understand and identify with Elijah wanting to just chill under a bush somewhere. We worry too about burning out lay leaders in the church. I don’t know if statistics have been collected on that, but they have been compiled on pastor burnout. According to the New York Times (August 1, 2010)
Please don’t hear this is complaining on my part. I love being a pastor. And most of us feel we are compensated for the stresses by the joys of helping someone through a tough time, seeing people grow in faith and discipleship, getting to do those weddings
Two weeks ago our Clerk of Session announced to you session’s affirmation of my anticipated retirement date. Some of you will be delighted to see me go. Others of you will grieve. I shared these statistics with you hoping that you might keep them in mind as this church moves forward and eventually calls a new pastor. If I know anything about NKPC, it’s that you can do almost anything you put your mind to, and you can care for and nurture a pastor so that he/she does not become the victim of those kinds of statistics.
Haggard and despondent, Elijah escaped to the desert and dove under a “solitary broom tree” to die, but God came and met him through that still, small voice. Elijah was in no condition to hear the still, small voice, until he’d listened to that loud, big voice in the pit of his stomach. Elijah needed a drink. He needed nourishment. He needed strengthening. Elijah needed some comfort food.
So do we. Comfort foods are the things we eat and drink when needing a sense of reward, security, calm or reprieve from life’s circumstances. They’re things we enjoy for their familiarity, simplicity or pleasant associations from past enjoyment.
What do you think of when you thing of comfort foods? I’m guessing it isn’t the flat cornbread and a jug of water that Elijah found. For me it’s things like pecan pie, mac and cheese or double-chocolate brownies. Each person, each culture has its favorite dishes. People who study this sort of thing have learned that comfort eaters tend to choose high-carb foods because the brain responds to their consumption by releasing the natural tranquilizer tryptophan. In other words, carbs calm.
While comfort foods speak to our bodies, where do our souls find comfort? In that still small voice. Elijah didn’t find God in the wind of a hurricane, in the earthquake or the fire. He heard God’s still, quiet, comforting voice when he paused in the entrance of the cave where he had taken refuge.
You can hear it this morning in the comforting words of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia: “By faith in Christ you are in direct relationship with God. Your baptism in Christ was not just washing you up for a fresh start. It also involved dressing you in an adult faith wardrobe—Christ’s life, the fulfillment of God’s original promise.
“In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ.
In this is comfort food for our souls: By God’s grace, we are all loved by God and in relationship with Jesus Christ.
FIRST LESSON: I Kings 17:8-24
SECOND LESSON Luke 7:11-17
"When elephants fight, the grass suffers." So goes an old African proverb. The elephants in question here, Yahweh and Baal - gods competing for a nation's allegiance with the original weapons of mass destruction: drought and disaster. A widow and her son, were caught in this cosmic struggle between fruitfulness and famine.
As this story begins we meet one of faith's greatest heroes, Elijah. He gets no introduction other than the fact that he is from an obscure northern village called Tishbe, but there is no question whose side he is on; his name means Yahweh is my God.
When he meets this woman, she is at the end of her rope – or at least at the end of her food, and she expects she and her son will die soon of starvation.
Trusting in God is fine, as long as it is something you believe He can do. It’s funny that sometimes we find ourselves content to let God handle the ordinary things in life like giving us an opportunity to do well on a job interview or score well on a test. But, when it really comes to the hard things, the things that really seem impossible and we have little if any faith that they will ever happen, we are often tempted to trust our own means rather than give the problem up to God. Being content to wait on the Lord for the impossible is something that many of us just have a hard time doing.
Why are we so reluctant to give God the impossible things and then sit back and wait for an answer? We know that God has done the impossible in the past. He the cosmos from nothing. How impossible can you get? Even the simpler things like parting the waters of the Red Sea and sending manna and quail to His children in the desert were accomplished without so much as a bat of a Holy eyelash. Yet, when it comes to our impossible, the things that have us so stymied that we are at a total loss for a solution, we often find ourselves thinking that we know God could do it, but it seems so far-fetched that He would. So we fight on alone, trusting that somehow luck or pluck will get the job done.
Perhaps it’s just because we might feel we don’t want to bother God with hard tasks. Perhaps it’s because we feel foolish asking for really “big” things. More likely, however, it’s because we have a schedule for things to happen and the hard things, the impossible things, need to be gotten out of the way quickly so that we can move on with our lives. We know that God has a solution for every problem in life. The problem is we often find ourselves reluctant to match our schedules with His timetable. And we often are reluctant to trust the way in which God handles our troubles.
In World War II, a soldier was separated from his unit and was trapped behind enemy lines. The enemy knew he was there and that he had little chance of escape. He found a cave and hid. He knew that it was just a matter of time before they found the cave, too.
He prayed to God, “God if you can, please save me, but I trust your will. If I’m to die, let me die bravely, and take care of my family. Amen.”
He lifted his head and saw a spider busily building a web over the opening of the cave. Back and forth she went. “Silly spider,” he thought. “We’re both going to be blasted to bits. I need a brick wall and I get a spider web?”
He heard the crunch of boots and loud talking in a language he didn’t understand. But he did understand two words. “Spider web.”
As the enemy soldiers walked away, he realized that because the mouth of the cave was covered with a spider web they thought no one was in the cave. The spider web had been as strong as a brick wall. God may not give us what we want. But he gives us what we need.
Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, sees as a recurring theme throughout the Old Testament the conflict between the “liturgy of abundance” and the “myth of scarcity.”
The Bible starts out in Genesis 1 with a liturgy declaring God’s abundant blessing on all creation. At the end of each day God declares that day’s work to be “good.” It is not until we get to Genesis 47 that we encounter scarcity. Then Pharaoh organizes a plan to save up food for a coming famine. Even in the wilderness, God provides Israel with enough. But the people are frequently fearful that there will not be enough.
Brueggemann sees Americans functioning in the world today much the way Pharaoh did in Genesis. We, the richest people of the world, are the main coveters. “We never feel that we have enough,” says Brueggemann. “We have to have more and more, and this insatiable desire destroys us. Whether we are liberal or conservative Christians, we must confess that one of the central problems of our lives is that we are torn apart by the conflict between our attraction to the good news of God’s abundance and the power of our belief in scarcity — a belief that too often makes us greedy, mean and unneighborly. We spend our lives trying to sort out that ambiguity.
—religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=533. Retrieved December 6, 2006.
The end intention of the gospel is just this: to release earthlings from the egocentric anxieties of life, over economy, over death, over grief and sin, from the petty defenses of a legalistic way of life and from callous insensitivity to ethical reality. These are the kinds of anxiety the gospel aims to release us from. The gospel aims to release us to a concern for the welfare of others, to an eager preference of one another before each other, and to the adoration of the Lord Jesus Christ.
An optimist believes we live in the best of all possible worlds. A pessimist fears this is true. Winners know that so-called luck is the intersection of preparation and opportunity. If an individual is not prepared, he or she simply does not see or take advantage of a situation. Opportunities are always around, but only those who are prepared utilize them effectively.
The greatest miracle we have is that God came to us in Jesus Christ to show us how much God loves us and to make sure we know that we are forgiven people. And ultimately that . . . is enough.
FIRST LESSON: I Kings 8:22-24, 31-40
SECOND LESSON Galatians 1:1-12
SERMON: “Living Resurrection – Church and Gospel”
Sometime last week one of my Facebook “Friends” posted a picture of a church sign. Some of those can be quite funny; others rather pointed. This one said, “God prefers kind atheists over hateful Christians,” and was ‘signed’ by the pastor. Several people had clicked “like.” One person had commented that “true Christians are not hateful.” Rarely do I comment on Facebook posts, especially ones that put forward any kind of controversial position. Mostly that’s because I’m pretty sure that my comment will have little likelihood of changing anyone’s mind. But I posted a comment on this one, perhaps because it carried a pastor’s ‘signature.’ More importantly, it expressed something that on the surface many will agree with, but it carries a message tucked into its back pocket that I believe is theologically unsound.
“God prefers kind atheists over hateful Christians” implies that God cares more for some of his children than for others. So this time, I commented and wrote, God loves all of his children. He does prefer loving kindness over meanness. Jesus taught us to love even our enemies.” Some of you may agree with my response, others perhaps not. We find no end of topics to debate. How do I know what God prefers? I do know some of the things Jesus taught us about God, and loving even our enemies is one of those teachings. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, 43 ”You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,”
Frederick Buechner, in one of the most memorable passages from his book, The Magnificent Defeat wrote:
The love for equals is a human thing ... of friend for friend, brother for brother. It is to love what is loving and lovely. The world smiles.
The love for the less fortunate is a beautiful thing ... the love for those who suffer, for those who are poor, the sick, the failures, the unlovely. This is compassion, and it touches the heart of the world.
The love for the more fortunate is a rare thing ... to love those who succeed where we fail, to rejoice without envy with those who rejoice, the love of the poor for the rich, of the black man for the white man. The world is bewildered by its saints.
And then there is the love for the enemy ... love for the one who does
not love you but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain. The tortured’s love for the torturer.
This is God’s love. It conquers the World.
I know, it’s just the beginning of summer, and September looks a ways off, but someone suggested to me a book for the Adult education class that I find intriguing and exciting: What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian. You may laugh at the title, but it’s not such a bad idea to sort out some of the commonly held misunderstandings concerning what Christianity doesn’t actually teach and then to grasp the core beliefs of Christian faith. To be a Christian do we have to believe that bad people are going to fry in hell or that Jewish people and other non-Christians won’t make it to heaven? What do Christians believe about the identity and work of Jesus? What are those “essential tenets of [Reformed] faith?
This is what Paul is getting at in this letter to the Galatian churches. It is a trumpet blast for freedom in Christ. Martin Luther considered Galatians the best book in the Bible. It has been called “the battle-cry of the Reformation,” the great charter of religious freedom,” and the Christian declaration of independence,”
In this profound letter, Paul proclaims the reality of our liberty in Christ-freedom from the curse of the law and the power of sin, and the freedom to serve our living Lord.
Most of the first converts and early leaders in the church were Jewish Christians who proclaimed Jesus as their Messiah. As Jewish Christians, they struggled with a dual identity: their Jewishness constrained them to be strict followers of the law; their newfound faith in Christ invited them to celebrate a holy liberty.
Paul was accused by some Jewish Christians of diluting salvation to make it more appealing to Gentiles. These Jewish Christians disagreed with Paul’s statements that Gentiles did not have to follow many of the religious laws that the Jews had obeyed for centuries. Some of Paul’s accusers had even followed him to those Galatian cities and had told the Gentile converts they had to be circumcised and follow all the Jewish laws and customs in order to be saved. According to these people, Gentiles had to first become Jews in order to become Christians. “Gospel” means “good news.” This would not exactly be good news to the Gentile converts So Paul wrote this letter to the Galatian churches to explains that following the Old Testament laws or the Jewish laws will not bring salvation. A person is saved by grace through faith.
In spite of the fact that the Jerusalem council settled the law versus grace controversy in about 49 or 50 A.D. There are still arguments about what constitutes salvation. Even today there are many false gospels being preached.
Bob Kaylor, Senior Minister of the Park City United Methodist Church in Park City, Utah writes:
“There are plenty of gospels out there that more reflect the culture than they reflect anything having to do with Jesus. Think about some of them:
“The Gospel of Hate spewed by “Christians” from the Westboro Baptist Church, who picket soldiers’ funerals and believe that people who don’t follow their agenda deserve whatever tragedy befalls them. So much for grace.
“The Gospel of Prosperity touted by famous TV preachers who tell their people that God wants them to be rich, and that all they need to do is “name and claim” what they want and God will give it to them (if they will only believe and send a check to their ministry). So much for “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20), and “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24).
““The Gospel of Sin Management”-- a phrase coined by Dallas Willard to describe a gospel that “produces vampire Christians who want Jesus for his blood and little else.” This gospel is only concerned about getting people into heaven and “reduces salvation to a spiritual exchange divorced from life in this world. It makes salvation and God irrelevant to daily life.”
The Social Gospel, which grew out of the Enlightenment idea of progress and reason, believes that humanity can rid itself of social evils, and that human progress will continue to make things better and better. In this gospel, Jesus provides a good example of how to make the world a better place, and his death and resurrection are mere metaphors for living sacrificially --more good advice than good news.
“The Apocalyptic Gospel is all about watching the sky for Christ’s return and waiting for the Rapture that will suck all the right-believing Christians into the great beyond like some kind of Heavenly Hoover, leaving the rest of humanity behind to stew in hell.
‘You can probably think of other “gospels” that get preached all the time. Of course, there may be elements of truth in some of these “gospels.” God does hate sin, but continues to love sinners. God does want us to be prosperous, but in the richness of his grace, not necessarily the wealth of our bank accounts. Jesus’ blood does save us, but it doesn’t just save us from something, it saves us for the work of God’s kingdom. Yes, God desires our participation in making the world look more like what we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer (“on earth as it is in heaven”), but we can’t make that a reality that without Christ’s redemptive death for the world and his resurrection promise of the ultimate defeat of death. We do, indeed, await Christ’s return, but he’s not coming to take us away -- he is coming to take over!
Living resurrection in the church means living out the grace of God’s love poured out for all of us in the earthly life, ministry, suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. Living resurrection in the church means loving not just the lovable, but also the unlovable. Living resurrection in the church means extending to others the same grace that God offers to us. Living resurrection in the church means that we can come to this Table, share bread and cup, remembering that Christ is the host at this meal and invites us to come, not because we are good, but because he is good.
The grace of God is embodied and enacted in Jesus’ death. We cannot defeat sin and evil and change the world on our own. We need a Savior who defeats sin and its ultimate power, death. Jesus does this through the cross and his resurrection (1:3-4)
The grace of God enacted through the Lord Jesus enables us to become children of God, bringing people from different backgrounds, cultures and customs together into a new community not marked by ethnicity and circumcision, but by faith and baptism (1:3).
As God’s children, we participate with God in his mission of transforming the world into God’s new creation. As Paul puts it, “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!”