Rev. Eric Dillenbeck
July 28, 2013

Scripture: Luke 11:1-13 and Psalm 85
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Psalm 85

1Lord, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
2You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin.
3You withdrew all your wrath; you turned from your hot anger.
4Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us.
5Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations?
6Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you?
7Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.
8Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
9Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.
10Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
11Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.
12The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.
13Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.

Luke 11:1-13

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2Jesus said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

5And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

9“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches – finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God

“Let us Pray…But Why?”

Just over a week ago I got back from our youth mission trip to NYC where our youth and adults spent time feeding the poor and homeless and helping to rebuild after hurricane Sandy. We served meals, we cleaned dishes, we listened to life stories… we pulled out nails, we ripped out door and window frames, we carried away debris, we hauled over 3000 gallons of bottled water… we ate lots of ice cream, we stood in Times Square, we enjoyed great pizza, we lounged in Central Park and we saw a Broadway show.

We experienced a lot during our time in the city, but now, a week later, the piece that lingers most vividly in my heart is our visit to the Brooklyn Tabernacle for worship and Bible Study. Around 1500 people packed into a gilded Broadway theater style sanctuary on a Tuesday night… some grubby from serving all day, some coming straight from work…youth groups from all over the country were there… all sorts of people were welcomed just as they were to gather in that place to sing and learn more about God and our part in God’s story.

For me, most of the service felt very familiar, comfortable and expected. For others in our group the songs and style of the message were both unsettling and inviting at the same time. But the one piece of worship there at the Brooklyn Tabernacle that challenged each and every one of us was their practice of prayer.

Early in the service one of their staff members was invited to come and speak to the congregation about a new mission emphasis taking shape in the congregation. This young woman came and spoke to us about a world-wide epidemic. This epidemic is the abduction of young boys and girls. They are simply gone… vanished… sold into the slavery of objectification and used against their wills by those who are seeking to gratify base desires.

She told us about Moldova, a small country in Eastern Europe, where 300,000 young ones have gone missing. She told us this was a problem right here in NYC and a member from our trip helped us know that this is a problem right here in Ohio. She told us that the Tabernacle’s response to this tragedy was still taking shape, but invited us in the meantime to pray for those 300,000 missing children in Moldova.

At this point the pastor leading the service asked us to stand and turn to our neighbors and get into small groups of two or three, women with women and men with men. He asked us to pray aloud together. He asked the women to pray for those who were missing and the men to pray for the systems that create and perpetuate this problem.

As those in the congregation around us leapt into action, our little row up in the balcony froze. To be fair, another Presbyterian youth group in front of us were also equally frozen. I noticed 11 sets of eyes looking at me, asking, “What do we do?” I turned and started praying with two of our youth. I pray all the time in front of other people…it kinda comes with the territory: I pray in meetings, I pray in worship, I pray in restaurants, but I will admit that I felt awkward in that moment.

On that balcony that night I prayed and I watched as those around us joined hands and started praying, I watched the ease with which they entered into prayer. And then I watched our group and the other youth groups around us as they awkwardly went through the exercise.

Later that night, during our group devotional we talked a lot about that moment and about the purpose of prayer. “Why did we pray for those women?” someone in the group asked. “Why did we pray for the world someone else” asked. “Why did we even pray?” someone else asked. The thought behind those questions: The need was so great, the facts of the situation were so dismal, what possible good could come from prayer?

I don’t share excerpts from these conversations to shame those who were with me in New York, I share them because I think they are all too common. I have had this same conversation with youth and adults of every age in every place I have worked.

This might sound strange to you, but prayer is not an easy thing to do. When you aren’t used to praying all the time, it can feel like you are talking to yourself…You can’t prove someone hears you…most times you can’t see the impact of the prayers you offer; and when you aren’t in the habit it can sometimes…oftentimes feel clumsy, the words don’t flow, it’s easy to feel like you are not doing it right.

I imagine the disciples often felt that way when they were around Jesus. He was always stopping off during their journeys to rest and pray. During his time of prayer the disciples must have somehow noticed the close relationship. Maybe it was his posture, maybe it was the language he used, maybe it was how refreshed and renewed he appeared after he prayed. Whatever it was, the disciples noticed and they wanted to know what it felt like. So one of the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray…to help them get closer to God like he was.

Jesus sees their hearts desire and responds with some simple words to use that should frame their prayer life…the Lord’s Prayer and in typical Jesus fashion a story to go along with it. Prayer, he says, is like a friend knocking on the door at midnight. A friend, traveling by night to avoid the heat of the day, has arrived at your doorstep looking for food and a place to sleep. You didn’t expect anyone at this hour of night and your refrigerator is empty and your cabinets are bare. Of course the Heinens is closed at that hour so your only option is to bother your neighbors and hope they won’t mind.

You knock on the door…it’s dark, there’s a chill in the air. “Who’s there?” asks your annoyed neighbor.

“So sorry to bother you. I am sure you were asleep, but would you mind if I borrow a loaf of bread, some grapes and maybe some juice? A guest has just arrived unexpectedly and I don’t have any food to share with him.” “Are you kidding? Go away and come back in the morning!” comes the reply. If you listen close enough you can hear your neighbor grumbling on his way back to his bed, “can you believe the nerve?”

But you are desperate…your guest has been traveling all night and is starving and you won’t be turned away.

You knock again, louder and more insistent this time. “Please, friend…I really need some bread and juice to share…I won’t forget this favor.” The groaning grows louder as your neighbor comes to the door, you hear the latch turning, the door opening and then you see the food shoved through the doorway.

You didn’t get what you wanted because the person was feeling particularly friendly towards you. You got what you needed because you were persistent, because you wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. Jesus’ point in this story seems to be that the secret to prayer is persistence. The prayer doesn’t have to be pretty, it doesn’t have to be eloquent; you just need to keep talking, to keep asking, to keep lifting before God your heart’s desire.

But why? Why pray? When the world is full of such heartache? Why pray? What good will it do right here and right now to not only talk about it with God, but to KEEP talking about it over and over again? How often do we see our prayers answered when we say “Amen”? The needs of the world and the needs of our lives demand action. Why should we pray?

Pastor and storyteller, Michael Lindvall answers that question for me in one of his stories from his novel Leaving North Haven.

David, the pastor in the story goes to visit Minnie, a 90 year old woman living with Parkinson’s disease. She was recently very ill allowing the parkinson’s to progress rapidly. She is frail and resigned to what lies ahead for her.

David and Minnie begin to talk about prayer after a 10 year old named James tells Minnie that he has asked God to heal Minnie and he is certain that God will answer the prayer because his Sunday School teacher told him that God answers all our prayers. Minnie looks at her pastor and says in a moment of wonderful honesty, “David, the truth is, I hardly know what to pray for anymore. 10 to 12 years ago, when they first said the word, [Parkinson’s] I prayed to be healed. For years, I prayed that God would just take it away. Finally I stopped praying for God to take away the Parkinson’s and started praying bigger prayers. I just tell God what I think and what I feel. I don’t much tell God what to do. I just tell God I’m afraid, afraid for me, afraid for my old fool of a husband. I suppose God knows this already, but my words seem to make it solid”

Together David and Minnie sat in silence and let the words linger in their hearts and then Minnie continued.

“Well, Pastor, don’t worry. This old lady’s prayers have been answered. Not the answers I wanted though. God didn’t take away the Parkinson’s, but God did take away the fear .”

“God didn’t take away the Parkinson’s, but God did take away the fear.”

The power of persistence in prayer. It wasn’t always pretty, it wasn’t always eloquent, but Minnie prayed and God answered. Minnie prayed and God worked in those prayers to help Minnie see herself in the very arms of God. God worked through those prayers to create space in Minnie’s heart for acceptance and peace.

It wasn’t what Minnie was expecting, but it was what Minnie needed.

Persistent prayer helps us to see. It helps us to see ourselves more clearly and to experience ourselves being held in the very arms of God. We need to pray persistently in the face of the world’s tough problems because the problems are too big for us to see how to respond. We need to pray persistently for the 30,000 missing to be found. We need to pray persistently for the systems of the world to change… we need to pray for the homeless to have shelter…we need to pray for the sick to find healing…we need to pray persistently so that our fear might be replaced with hope, with peace, with the light of God’s love so that we may see how we are part of God’s solution.

We need to pray persistently because when we pray we put ourselves and others into God’s hands.

And when we put these things into God’s hands, we begin to see more clearly how we are connected one to another; we begin to see more clearly how God is shaping us to respond; when we put these things into God’s hands we begin to see more clearly that God’s doors have no locks, that God’s doors are always open to us; we begin to see and understand that God’s doors are not only open for us, but for those for whom we pray.

It is in our prayers that we begin to understand with whom we stand on that threshold. It is in our prayers that our connections grow one to another and with God. It is in our prayers that our fear is replaced with the hope that God is present and God will act to redeem creation. It is in our prayers that we begin to sense how we are called to participate in that work.

Let us pray bigger prayers; prayers filled with what we think and what we feel. Let’s worry less about telling God what to do and instead just hold others before God because the door’s to God’s home have no locks and God is always waiting to hear our needs.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Derek Starr Redwine
July 21, 2013

Scripture: Luke 10:38-42
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In last week’s sermon we looked at the interaction between Jesus and a lawyer, a lawyer who, like many of us, was searching for eternal life.

In answer to the man’s question about how one one inherits eternal life, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, a story that makes it clear that if you want to have eternal life, you need to serve those in need.

Eternal life is not something we wait for, Jesus teaches; it is something we experience here and now, when we extend mercy to those who need it most.

            That was last week.

This week, in the passage you just heard from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus seems to undermine his own teaching.

Martha is doing exactly what Jesus commands the lawyer to do. She is setting aside her own needs and extending hospitality to one in need. In many ways he is the man beaten, bruised, and left for dead on the side of road. Jesus, is after all, on his way to Jerusalem, where he will suffer and die, and yet when Martha makes time to serve him, Jesus implies that what she is doing is ʻnot the better part.ʼ

It is Mary, who I’m guessing was the younger sister, who gets Jesus’ attention. It is Mary, who just sits there while Martha toils away in the kitchen who Jesus praises.

Let’s face it; most of us here, at this successful, hard-working church are Marthas. We are the ones work, and serve, and strive.  We set goals, make lists, and do what needs to be done, which means that when we hear this passage, we get a little annoyed, because Jesus seems to say that people who do less, have it right.

Well, that is not exactly what he is saying. 

Whenever you come across a passage of scripture that confuses you, whenever you read something that seems to contradict something that was said before, take a step back and look at its greater context.  Today’s passage does not stand alone. It is addendum or extension of the passage that comes right before.  This exchange between Jesus and Martha is a continuation of the answer to the lawyerʼs question of how one inherits eternal life.

In the second chapter of Markʼs Twainʼs The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom faces the daunting task of whitewashing Aunt Pollyʼs 810-square-foot-fence. With this unpleasant job lying before him, Twain writes, “Life to Tom seemed hollow, and existence a burden.”

But then Tom has as Twain puts it “nothing less than a great, magnificent inspiration”.

When his friend Ben ambles by and mocks Tom for his sorry lot, Tom acts confused. “Slapping paint on a fence isnʼt a chore,” he says. “Itʼs a fantastic privilege.” The job is so captivating, in fact, that when Ben asks to try a few brushstrokes for himself, Tom refuses.

He doesn’t relent until Ben promises to give an apple in exchange for the opportunity to help Tom paint the fence. Soon more boys arrive and tumble into Tomʼs ruse,

and before they know it,

together they have whitewashed the fence several times over.

In todayʼs passage, Jesus is not saying that we shouldn’t serve more than we already do.  We can and will do more for those in need. As he illustrated in the story of the Good Samaritan, it is through our service that create the kingdom of God here on earth.  When the youth of this church toiled in the heat in New York, they were doing God’s good work.

Jesus is not critiquing Martha for what she is doing.  He is critiquing her for her attitude.  Somewhere along the way, she forgot what matter most.

 

His name was Aaron.  He was young and excited about the church. Aaron was the kind of new member churches drool over.  He hadn’t attended a church since high school, but having kids inspired him to look for a new church home, and when he found First Presbyterian, he was all in!

He loved the church and couldn’t wait to get involved.  When he shared his faith story with the Session, prior to joining, it was obvious that his faith was on fire. Aaron was eager and ready to follow Jesus.

Then it happened. Instead of reframing his expectations,

            instead of feeding his soul with the good news of gospel,

                        instead helping him deepen the commitments he already had,

                                    the church gave him things to do.

They put Aaron on the Properties committee.  He was after all an architect, and it was where his gifts lay. Aaron eagerly agreed to serve. If that was where he was needed, he would gladly do it. Within a year Aaron was chairing the committee…and you can probably guess the rest. Within three years after joining, Aaron was gone. 

He had served his way right out of the church.

We so easily forget it, because most of us here equate our value with our work, but Jesus did not come to give us more things to do. He came to give us a gift that we all desperately need.

As a parent of three young children, who are stubborn and strong, and the pastor of such a dynamic church as Fairmount  I have great interest in the best ways to motivate people to do what needs to be done. Fortunately, there is a lot of interesting research out there motivation, and in my studies, one common thread has emerged: expectations or obligations

that are placed upon us do more harm than good.

In fact, when we do something out of obligation, or duty, or to receive some reward, we lose something valuable in the process. We lose our joy.

At some point Aaron would have made a great committee member, but before he was asked to serve the church, he needed to receive the good news. He needed to be fed.  Instead of finding a place for him to serve, the church needed to help Aaron find a small group, or a Bible study, or and education class where he Gould learn about God’s grace. He needed to learn that his work, while important, had nothing to do with his receiving eternal life.

A few years ago a team of researchers contacted 23 professional artists who had produced both commissioned and non-commissioned works. The researchers then asked these artists to randomly select 10 of their commissioned works and 10 of their non-commissioned pieces.

The researchers then gave the art to a panel of accomplished artists and curators, who knew nothing about the study, instructing them to rate the pieces on two scales: creativity and technical skill.

The results were startling.

The commissioned works were rated as significantly less creative than the non-commissioned works, even though the commissioned works scored no lower in technical quality.[1]  In other words, the commissioned pieces were technically good works of art, but in every instance the curators and artists could just tell that something was missing.

At its best the church is a place where people are given the space and time they need to discover God’s unconditional love for them….at its worst, the church is an institution that suffocates people’s faith through more and more obligations.

Remember, this is supposed to be fun! Martha had Jesus, the Son of the Living God, in her house, and she still wasn’t happy. She had seen and heard all Jesus had done, and she was still bitter that Mary seemed to be getting all the love.

As we discussed last week, heaven is not just a destination, it’s also a way of life, which means that the realities of heaven should be accessible to us here and now, and I’ve always imagined heaven being a place full of joy. In heaven, I imagine people are thankful, and appreciative, and grateful for everything.

You see, when Jesus senses Marthaʼs bitterness towards Mary, he is not angry at her. He’s sad for her

 

Martha is trying to earn her place at the table. She is trying to prove her worth.  She is working hard to claim her promise, and she canʼt do any of it.

We canʼt work ourselves into heaven. We can serve ourselves into eternal life. And we certainly can’t  manufacture joy.

Eugene Peterson in his paraphrasing of the New Testament, The Message, writes in his translation of today’s story that “Mary has chosen the main course. And it will not be taken from her.”

What we do matters,  but not as much as what God has done for us. If we forget that God’s love is a gift,

            and keep on keep on doing good work,

                                    we will grow bitter.

I’ve seen it happen time…and time again. Love, peace, and joy only come to us a gift, freely given, and until we accept that we will never be happy.

Indian priest Anthony de Mello tells the story of two fishermen. One is asleep on the beach while the other, a more prosperous fisherman, chides his friend.  “Why aren’t you out fishing?”

“I’ve caught what I need for the day.” the man replies.

“But you could catch more fish and sell them. Then you could buy bigger boats and hire other workers–and catch even more fish.”

“And then what?”

“Well, you could become rich and retire and do what you want–enjoy life.”

The first fisherman sighs. “What do you think I’m doing right now?”[2]

If youʼre feeling bitter about all the work you do for others, if your relationship with God means less to you the more you serve, if you’ve got little patience for people who seem happy in the work they do, get out of the kitchen and  trust that someone else will do the work that needs to be done.

If youʼre serving with a heavy heart,

            whether it be here at church, or at work, or at home,

                                    stop what you are doing and make time for Jesus.

Pray. Read. Meditate. Study. Exercise. Nap.

Make time for something that feeds your soul.

Mary has chosen the better part, Jesus says, and it will not be taken from her. Do this, he teaches, and you will live.

Amen.


[1] Drive Daniel Pink, pp. 36.

[2]Told in “Raising Children, Raising Ourselves” by Dee Dee Risher in the Nov/Dec 2007 issue of Horizons Magazine

Derek Starr Redwine
Sunday, July 14, 2013

Scripture: Luke 10:25-37

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What must we do to inherit eternal life?

 

For some people of faith this is the question that matters most.

 

Compassion for the poor,

            care for the environment,

                                                worship,

                                                            the arts,

                                                                        they all matter,

                        but not as muchas where you go when you die.

 

                                    For some, it’s all about eternity.

 

There are entire organizations,

            websites,

                        and blogs

                                    dedicated to training people

to walk up to strangers in public

and ask them,

 

                        “Do you know where you will go when you die?”

 

                                    Yikes.

 

Just today in my drive up from Akron, I saw a church sign and a bumper sticker that both asked “Do you know where you will spend eternity?”

 

Now, with all this anxiety about how one gets into heaven,

            the lawyer’s question in today’s reading

                        presents the perfect opportunity

                             for Jesus to give a clear, straightforward answer

                                                to a question that matters so much

                                                                                    to so many Christians.[1]

           

And in a moment of surprising clarity, Jesus does just that!

 

                   It takes him a moment to get there;

we have to hear a story first,

                                                but for once Jesus tells us

                       exactly what we have to do.

 

 

A man died and went to heaven. When he got there, Saint Peter gave him the nickel tour. Peter showed him the harps, the streets of gold, and the cherubs.

 

As they walked around, the man noticed that there were groups of people scattered here and there. He was curious and so he asked Peter who they were.

 

“Well, those people over there,” Peter said, “sitting quietly and looking very serious—those are the Presbyterians.”

 

“And the folks over there eating the big potluck meal—those are the Methodists.”

 

“The ones with all the tambourines, those are the Pentecostals.”

 

As they went on, the man noticed one group set apart from the others. “What about them over there?” he asked.

 

“Shhh. Keep your voice down,” Peter said. “Those are the Baptists. They think they’re the only ones here.”[2]

 

 

What must we do to inherit eternal life?

 

In response to this question, Jesus asks a question of his own.

 

            “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”

 

And the man,

who we are told is a student of the law,

quickly gives an answer: Love.

 

            “Love God and your neighbor, with all you are, and you will live, forever.”

 

                        And Jesus says to him,

 

                        “You have given the right answer;

do this, and you will live.”

 

                                    Wow! How often do you hear Jesus say that!?

                                   

                                                You have given the right answer.

 

Unfortunately, this man’s moment of clarity doesn’t last long.

            “Jesus,” he asks, “just who ismy neighbor?”

 

What follows is a story we’ve all heard before,

            it’s story of the good Samaritan showing compassion to someone in need,

                        but today I want to shift our focus from the story

To the conversation that frames it.

 

 

You see, when the lawyer asks about inheriting ‘eternal life’,

          he isn’t asking how to get into heaven when he dies.

 

                   That wasn’t a concern for the man or for Jesus.

                  

“Heaven” or “eternal life” for Jesus and his Jewish followers was deeply connected with the idea of a coming age that the Messiah would usher in.  We might call them “eras” or “periods of time.”

                                   

There was this age,

and the one that is to come.[3]

 

Which means that Jesus didn’t come to sell us fire insurance.He came to show us how to live. in this time

                   and the time that is to come.

 

 

Ittetsu Nemoto is a Buddhist priest with a very interesting job. Nemoto conducts death workshops at his temple for people in Japan who are suicidal. At these workshops Nemoto tells attendees to imagine they’ve been given a diagnosis of cancer and have only three months to live.

 

He instructs them to write down what they want to do in these three months. Then he tells them to imagine they have one month left…then a week…then ten minutes. 

 

                      Most people start crying in the course of this exercise,

including Nemoto.

 

One man who came to a workshop had been talking with Nemoto for years about wanting to die. He was thirty-eight years old and had been institutionalized off an on for a decade.

 

During this exercise the man just sat and wept,

staring at a blank page.

 

He had nothing to say in response to the Nemoto’s questions,

because he had never considered them.

 

All he had ever thought about was wanting to die;

          he had never thought about what he wanted to do with his life.

 

                        Then it hit him…the realization that changed his life:

                        if he had never really lived,

                                how could he want to die?[4]

 

 

You are here on a beautiful Sunday morning in Northeast Ohio, so I’m assuming that you want to live fully and deeply.

 

You want more from this life, not less.

 

          You want life, everlasting life,

and you want it now.

 

                  

The first time John decided to get help for his alcoholism was after his drinking nearly killed his son. After the car accident, John started attending AA meetings, and for about a year things were good, but then he stopped going. The meetings were getting annoying, and he was tired of hanging around a bunch of drunks.

 

Then John’s mom got cancer,

            and she called him at work to tell him the news,

                        and the first thing John did after he hung up the phone was find a bar.

 

He was pretty much drunk for the next two years.

 

The combination of his wife leaving him and another car accident drove John back to meetings again, and this time it stuck – something had changed.

           

The first cracks in the theory that AA succeeded in rehabilitating alcoholics solely by reprogramming their habits started appearing about a decade ago.

 

Stories like John’s were becoming more and more common.

 

Researchers began finding that habit replacement worked well until the stresses of life got to be too much, at which point alcoholics often fell off the wagon.

 

Academics wondered why this was the case. If habit replacement is so effective, why did it often fail at such critical moments?

 

As they dug into alcoholics’ stories to answer that question, researchers began to notice a pattern. Over and over again, alcoholics said the same thing: Identifying cues and choosing new routines wasn’t enough.

 

            The secret, the alcoholics said, was God.

 

Researchers of course hated that explanation. God and spirituality are not testable.

But study after study proved the same thing, alcoholics who believed, like John, that some higher power had entered their lives were more likelyto make it through the stressful periods with their sobriety intact.

 

Belief that their life could be better

made all the difference. [5]

 

 

The kingdom of God is at hand, Jesus says time again.The life you have been longing for is here. Repent and believe the good news.

 

 

Did you notice that after he finishes the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus doesn’t ask the lawyer whowas the Samaritan’s neighbor; he asks, who acted like a neighbor.

 

The answer, of course, is obvious: it is the Samaritan, which means that the neighbor isn’t simply the one in need.

 

          The neighbor is also the one who provides for our need,

                             the one who takes care of us

                                      regardless of who they – or we – might be.

 

          Do this, Jesus says, and you will live, forever.

 

 

Many years ago a preacher gave a wonderful sermon on the life that is to come. In his sermon he made the impassioned argument that heaven is for all people. With well chosen words he painted a beautiful image of both sinners and saints sitting together at a God’s heavenly table.

 

            In heaven, he argued, all receive the mercy they need.

 

After the sermon, the pastor stood in the back of church and greeted parishioners as they left.  At the end of the line was Brent – one of the faithful attenders – and he looked angry.

 

Pastor, you know I respect you,

            but I simply refuse to believe that in heaven

                        I will be sitting at table with people who have wronged me,

                                    disregarded God,

                                                and lived in ways that are contrary to God’s law.

 

                                                That is simply not heaven to me.

 

                        “No Brent,” the pastor said,

                                    “That would be hell for you.”

 

 

Jesus spends most of his ministry telling us that the kingdom of God is at hand, and yet we resist the message. We resist believing that eternal life is available now

                                    because the defining characteristic of the eternal realm

                                                            is something we have VERY hard time accepting.

 

                        Eternal life is a life defined by unmerited mercy

                                                and undeserved grace.

 

When the Samaritan helps the man who is left for dead, he doesn’t try to figure out how he ended up there, pr whose side he is on;

                        he simply cares for the man,

                                    as he would have wanted to be cared for.

 

Which got me wondering…if Jesus chose this story, of all stories, to show us how to inherit eternal life, could it be possible that heaven isn’t a place where people have it all together?

 

Could it be that eternal life isn’t all that different from this life,

        except for the fact that mercy is as common

                                        as the air we breathe?

 

While many make the argument that heaven is a place free from sins, mistakes, and miscues,

I hope it isn’t, because you can’t live, and love, and learn

                                                without making a few mistakes along the way.

 

What if in eternity we are defined not by our mistakes, but by Gods grace?

What if heaven is perfect in that there are no dead ends or lost causes?

What if the kingdom that is to come,

          a kingdom that is at hand,

                   is a place where mercy is extended to anyone and everyone.

Over and over again.

 

Eternal life is NOT a place where we go IF we get it right…or a destination for a select few.

 

Eternal life is way of life defined by never ending second chances

                                                new beginnings

                                                           and fresh starts.

 

 

            What must we do to inherit eternal life?

 

          Extend and receive mercy – to everyone who needs it.

 

                        Do this, Jesus says, and you will live,

                                                                                                forever. 

 

Amen.

 

 


[1] This perspective and insight come from the book, “Love Wins” by Rob Bell.

[2] This story comes from a sermon by Sarah Howell entitled “Heaven is a Place on Earth”, June 5, 2013.

[3] Bell, Rob (2011-03-15). Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (p. 30). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[4] Last Call, Larissa MacFarquhar, “The New Yorker”, June 24, 2013, p. 56.

[5] Duhigg, Charles (2012-02-28). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (pp. 83-85). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Rev. Eric Dillenbeck
July 7, 2013

Scripture: Revelation 22:1-5 & Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Podcast: fpcpodcast20130707.mp3

Revelation 22:1-5

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb
2through the middle of the street of the city.
On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
3Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him;
4they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.
5And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

“Sent Out”

It was May 1995; I was looking forward to turning 21 and to spending the summer in southeast Alaska where I was going to be serving as a volunteer in mission. I was more than a little nervous because I was going to spend the summer traveling from village to village in small groups leading a vacation bible school with the local children.

I flew from Atlanta to Seattle and then from there boarded an Alaska Air flight to Juneau, which would be our home base for the next three months.

When we gathered for the first time in the basement of the local church where we would be sleeping and training there were 8 college aged kids, an adult coordinator and two year-long young adult volunteers.

We spent two weeks in that basement learning the lessons and having conversations about cultural sensitivity. Our little bit of free time was spent hiking the trails around Juneau before enjoying dinners in church members homes.

On Friday morning of the 2nd week we were paired up into teams of two and given tickets for the ferry at which point we repacked our backpacks and boarded the ferry together.

That night, with the sun low in the sky, but never quite gone, the 8 of us pulled out our sleeping bags on the deck of the ferry and gathered around. Our evening devotion that night was our assigned Gospel lesson for today.

Let us listen for God’s word speaking to us this day from:

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. 2He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into God’s harvest. 3Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.

5Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ 6And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 7Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house.

8Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 11‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’

16“Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” 17The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” 18He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. 19See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.

20Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

The Word of the Lord Thanks be to God.

The disciples and Jesus had been very busy. The 12 disciples had just returned from a very similar trip, going out in the name of Jesus to preach and to heal and to cast out demons. They had returned triumphant, feeling empowered and amazed by the works they accomplished. Then with Jesus they managed to feed 5000 people with just 5 loaves of bread and two fish and did many other amazing things. And then Jesus made up his mind to head towards Jerusalem. This was a milestone moment in his ministry and to mark the occasion he decided it was time for another mission for his followers.

This time it wasn’t just the 12 disciples he sent forth. The text tells us he appointed 70 others and sent them ahead of him. He sent them in pairs to engage in ministry in the places he himself intended to visit. Who were these 70 people? Who did Jesus send out ahead of him? Luke doesn’t give us details about their identity. But theologians through the years have helped us remember that the number 70 in scripture has a special significance.

“The number 70 implies all of humanity, as Genesis 10 provides a list of all the nations of the world, numbering 70 .” Meaning that not only is salvation for all of humanity, but that each person is sent out to help others know about God’s grace.

Wait, what? Did Luke just say what I think he said? Did he just throw a HUGE rock into a lake and send ripples out in all directions? Did the work of Christ just shift from Jesus and the disciples to all those who believe in him?

We are the 70…we are the ones Jesus sends out ahead of him…we are the ones who are called to go forth in our vulnerability to offer Christ’ peace, to offer Christ’ healing, to help people know that the reign of God has come near.

But here’s the thing, the piece of the story that was so real to me that night 18 years ago on the deck of that ferry in Alaska. This charge makes us vulnerable.

I was barely 21, and I was on a boat in the middle of Alaska with people I barely knew. I was sailing towards a village where I was going to be totally dependent on strangers to provide food and shelter to me in the coming week. We had no money, all we had was the name of a church and the person that was supposed to be meeting us at the dock.

It was clear to those of us on the deck of that ferry that we were where we were supposed to be. We had been charged by Christ to be in that place, to go forth and help others know that the reign of God had come near. But it was also clear that this charge required us to go forth in courage to embrace the vulnerability, to depend on the hospitality of others and to accept what was given to us, for good and for ill with love in our hearts. From village to village we went that summer, eating more rhubarb than I care to remember, talking with adults and children alike about their lives and the joys of living in such remote locations, sharing with them the stories of Jesus that guided our bible school lessons.

That was 18 years ago, before I was married, before I had three children and a mortgage. It was relatively easy to spend that summer in total dependence on God’s grace to provide. It was easy to volunteer my time teaching and talking with children about God’s love, to spend my free time hiking with Trey, my fellow volunteer, and eating in different people’s homes each night.

It was easy to sit in the midst of the unknown on a deck of a ferry boat in Alaska and read this passage and to accept that I was sent forth in vulnerability to love and serve the Lord. But I read it today and it is scary. Am I willing to be that vulnerable today? Am I willing to trust enough to believe that God will provide?

Am I willing to just eat what is given to me, knowing that it might upset my stomach?

Am I willing to offer Christ’ peace to all I meet even if they don’t want to hear it? Am I willing not to curse a person if he or she rejects the peace that is offered?

As we prepare to begin a new chapter in our life together these are important questions.

We need to remember that we have been appointed by Christ…we are the ones being sent out to help the world know that the kingdom of God has come near. As those who have experienced the amazing grace of God in our midst during this time of transition we can be witnesses to God’s work in the world.

But, this requires us to be vulnerable. It requires us to go forth in dependence on God and to believe that God will provide, to believe that the Lord of the harvest will provide ABUNDANTLY.

And this abundance will help us to see the river of the water of life flowing through the middle of the holy city and to claim our place on its shores. We are the trees of life on the shores of the river producing fruits; we are the trees of life and our leaves, the works of our hands and hearts, are for the healing of the nations.

We are appointed…we are sent forth to help others know that the reign of God has come near.

May it be so. Amen.

Martha M. Shiverick
June 30, 2013

Scripture: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14

Podcast: fpcpodcast20130630.mp3

We all have mentors in our lives. People who have shepherded us at pivotal times in our lives and have helped shape who we are or will become. They can be your coach, a school teacher with whom you connect, a Sunday school teacher, a friend’s parent in the neighborhood, or hopefully even your minister! A decade ago when I was celebrating my 20th anniversary of my ordination, I did so by making a list of all the people that had mentored me in my life and I sent them all a thank you note. Some people here in our congregation received one. I wanted each of them to know how important they were to me and how grateful I still am to the time and support they have given me. This morning’s scripture passage is about a man and his mentor. It is about the great prophet Elijah and his protégé Elisha. The story takes place right at the end of Elijah’s life. He knows he is about to die. The younger Elisha is grieving this, does not want him to die, and has anxieties about whether he will be able to pick up and be Yahweh’s prophet after Elijah is gone. Listen now for God’s word as it is told in the stories of 2 Kings: 1-2, 6-14.

Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here: for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.

Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.

When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you before I am taken away from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Elijah knew his life was nearly over. He told Elisha to stay while he went off to die. Elisha was bereft and would not leave him. Perhaps an irrational part of him felt that if he stayed with him 24/7 he would not die? Perhaps it was that he loved him so he did not want him to be by himself when he did die? SO the two of them take this funny walk while Elijah is trying to get away from Elisha so that he can die and Elisha is determined to stay close to his mentor while he is dying. They traveled to Gilgel, they traveled to bethel, and now they are traveling to Jordan where they picked up some fifty other followers who traveled behind them. It must have been quite a scene!

The tension builds as the time of Elijah’s death gets closer. First, he can’t get away from Elisha and now a crowd is pressing in on the two of them. Finally he takes off his mantel and rolls it up and strikes the river and the waters part. Elijah’s mantel was a sleeveless cloak or garment which was meant to be a symbol of authority. Elijah and Elisha cross the river on dry land. It kind of reminds you of Moses and the Red Sea, right? Writers of commentaries on this passage say that this is very intentional. Where Moses strikes the water with his staff, Elijah strikes it with his mantel. Both are symbols of their power. We are to be reminded that Elijah and Moses are comparable figures. This Elijah is great… actually as great as Moses. And Elisha is to Elijah as Joshua was to Moses.

So, they get to the other side and Elijah asks what he can do for Elisha. What one last thing can he give this young man who will continue his ministry? And Elisha asks for a double share of his mentor’s spirit. In Jewish law the oldest son gets double the inheritance of the others. Elisha is asking for his inheritance to be like that of the first born son. Elisha is asking to be seen as Elijah’s rightful heir.

And we wish that Elijah just could have easily said of course. After all young Elisha left his family and everything he knew years ago to study under Elijah and become his heir apparent. But his answer was ambiguous. The confirmation was not in his hands but in God’s. His future is ambiguous. It has to do with seeing Elijah being taken up to heaven….

Oh dear, a new suspense. First we were told of poor Elisha’s anxiety over his mentor’s death and now the poor man has to be anxious over whether he will indeed become the next prophet of God. Will he get the spirit of Elijah? It has to do with whether he sees Elijah ascend into heaven.

And then the vision appears. It separates the two men as Elijah is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind complete with horses and chariots. What a vision. But we don’t know whether poor Elisha’s saw all that he needed to see. His grief is great and he tears his clothing in two. Although uncommon today, it seems that this was a common occurrence in Biblical days when one was in extreme grief. What is interesting though is that even in his grief; he collects himself and begins to move forward with his calling and ministry. He does not lay on the ground and wail, but he picks himself up and puts on the mantel of his mentor who is now in heaven with God. He puts on the cloak which represents his office and place as prophet and moves forward.

In a commentary by Presbyterian minister Carrie Mitchell who works in a church in Pittsford New York told a story about moving forward in grief:

‘Composer Giacomo Puccini wrote a number of famous operas. In 1922 he was suddenly stricken by cancer while working on his last opera, Turandot, which many now consider his best. Puccini said to his students, “If I don’t finish Turandot, I want you to finish it for me.” Shortly afterward he died. Puccini’s students studied the opera carefully and soon completed it. In 1926 the world premier of Turandot was performed in Milan with Puccini’s favorite student, Arturo Toscanini, directing.

Everything went beautifully until the opera reached the point where Puccini had been forced to put down his pen. Tears ran down Toscannini’s face. He stopped the music, turned to the audience, and cried out, “Thus far the Master wrote, but he died.” A vast silence filled the opera house. Toscanini smiled through his tears and exclaimed, “but his disciples finished his work.” When Turandot ended, the audience broke into thunderous applause.

In the same manner, Elisha, wearing the mantel of his beloved mentor, moves to return to the people that he and Elijah had separated from by crossing the Jordan River. He knows it is time to move forward and to begin the ministry to which he had been called and trained. Not knowing for sure whether he could do it, he took the mantel of Elijah and just as Elijah had done earlier he struck the water. He was probably hoping upon hope that it would indeed separate the water as it had done for his predecessor! It did. He had been given Elijah’s power and spirit. He crossed on dry land alone to begin the ministry to which God called.

The fact that this was the lectionary reading for today seemed such a serendipity. We too are parting and like Elisha are beginning new ministries and going our separate ways. For over eight years, we have been each other’s mentors. We have walked together, laughed together, done Christ’s work together, and learned from each other. Like Elijah and Elisha, we have loved our work and enjoyed where God has called us. The time has been wonderful. I have loved and enjoyed every moment of being one of your pastors and hope that you have too. Perhaps together we have even brought God’s realm a little closer to earth.

And God will call us again. Although we will move in separate and different directions, we know that God will empower us with the Spirit we need to move forward and continue what we started. We will put on each other’s mantels and continue ministries to which God calls. And God will equip us with what we need to do just that. Amen!

Martha M. Shiverick
Sermon: June 23rd, 2013

Scripture: Galatians 3:23-29
Podcast: fpcpodcast20130623.mp3

Every once in a while my small high school class of girls get together for a planned reunion or an impromptu dinner if a classmate comes to town. We have grown to really care for each other in the decades since high school and are proud of each other and the women we have become. I brought my mother to one of these ‘get-togethers’ as my classmates fondly remember her and she remembers most of them as well. My mom said to me after at this last dinner that although she still thought I was by far the prettiest girl in my high school class (I love my mother for her supportive and biased opinion of me) she realized that another classmate, Janet Green, was beautiful as well. She wondered why she had not noticed this before. My answer to her was that perhaps it was that she was not able to see her before. You see, Janet was one of the 4 African-Americans in our class of 45 girls. Perhaps it took her until now to see her as the beautiful woman that she had been all along. I shared my insight with a friend who is close enough to call me on my shortcomings and flaws. She said that it was only my mom who was truthful enough to admit the blindness of each of our own prejudice. After all, who in our class had thought in high school that Janet was the beauty among us? Finally we are all able to see her and can admit the truth to which we had been blind before.

I thought about that as I read this bold scripture passage from Galatian that we know so well. What is it that frees us from stereotypes and things that separate us from what another? What is it that allows us to see all as one? What do we gain when this happens and what does it mean? Listen now for God’s word as it is written in Paul’s letter to the Galatians 3:23-29.

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians is his attempt to answer the question of who is the true Israel… Who is God’s chosen… or for the immediate issue facing the people of Galatia… just how Jewish does a Christian have to be. Just as we are faced with moral questions as people of faith which our church debates and our denominations debate other denominations on issues of sex, money, ordination of women and gays and a woman’s right to self-determine a problem pregnancy, the church in the mid first century was in turmoil too. The question for these early Christians was whether gentiles needed to become Jews to be Christian. After all, God made a promise to Abraham and his descendants. They were God’s chosen race. They were to follow God’s law and they would be God’s people. And since the first Christians were Jews, this question was not relevant. But when Paul took Christianity outside of Israel and spread the good news of Christ to the Gentiles, this issue became paramount!

Paul addresses this issue in today’s lectionary reading from Galatians. He said that God gave us the Laws as a sort of custodian until Christ came. There was something very essential and important about following the Jewish laws before Christ, something akin to training us to be God’s people, but it became unimportant after the Jesus event when becoming a Christian, not a Jew became the identifier of being God’s people. The climax of the whole epistle is verses 26-29 where Paul redefines the people of God so as to demonstrate that Jews and gentiles belong together as a community on the basis of God’s faithfulness to God’s people. Becoming a Christian is the true identifier of our relationship with God. You are no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. All group identifiers which might have been divisive before are gone as all are Christian.

What is important to point out here, might be the obvious. Paul was not saying that the distinctions disappeared. The differences still exist. But all may and should participate fully in the community. The distinctions do not mar the relations between fellow followers of Christ or impeded a relation with God. The differences still exist… there is still men and women (although Paul included women in his communities as leaders and communicated with them in a way not previously heard in the Bible. There are still slave and free, although Paul did write on behalf of the slave Onesimus in his letter to Philemon as he saw him as equal to others in his faith in Christ. And there will be Jews and Gentiles. BUT, the differences are unimportant for the faith community. AND, if we are all one in Christ Jesus, we are one people who live with our differences.

I want to take this concept a little further before applying it to us and Christians of our day. The issue Paul was addressing was that the old practice was that everyone had to become the same before they were a child of God. To be God’s chosen, you had to become a Jew. You had to follow Jewish law. You had to be circumcised. You had to follow the Jewish dietary laws. It was hard for the outsider to come in. After Christ, differences were allowed. Not everyone had to be the same but a new unity was established in the following of Jesus Christ. In Christ, there is room for diversity that was not allowed under a faith that is held to the law. The expression that in Christ there is not male or female, free or slave, Jew or gentile is not that we meld into one people as Christians, but that our differences are not important in our fellowship of love and our discipleship as followers of Christ.

We are all aware of the great divisions within our denomination on ordination standards over the full inclusion of GLBTQ individuals into the life of our churches. Presbytery meetings, where these issues are discussed, are polarizing as members of Presbytery sit with like-minded folk and line up to speak their faith passionately in the meetings. In the Presbytery of the Western Reserve, we are known to be a progressive Presbytery and the votes on these manners always fall on the side of inclusion and the vote for changing rules which keep others from feeling a part of our church are slowly being chipped away. This hurts our more conservative Presbyters. But I always feel that the Presbytery ends up being what God intends for it to be after the vote. Time and time again, I have witnessed the embrace of fellow Presbyters who voted opposite in the meeting. Time and time again, I have seen people reach out and share that they knew that the vote was painful to the other. Inclusion in Christ’s church means that all opinions must be respected. We might not end up with a vote that pleases all, but we still are a family in Christ. It is in those moments where we reach out to the other that I feel Christ’s presence at the meetings.

Of course we could be a group that all thinks the same. It would sure be easier if that were the case. But I really think that the message here from Paul is that the rainbow of diversity that God intends for us is that we each keep our color, we each keep what makes us individuals and not melt into one bland, flavorless and colorless group. We are to work to see the beauty in not being all of one mind and work to understand each other as we respect what makes us different. The last line in our Fairmount Diversity Statement is that ‘We celebrate and find strength in our diversity.’ That sounds like a wonderful goal for us to try to achieve. Perhaps we all should be working to see the beauty in the other. Which brings me back to my high school classmate Janet Green…. Just like our realizing that Janet was the beauty of my high school class, we need to work on finding beauty and good in what we have up until this point only been able to see as different.

At today’s congregational meeting we will have the opportunity to work to that goal. I expect that the election of our new officers to take place without a hitch. The Nominating Committee has done a wonderful job and there is a slate of officers that will move this church into the future with your new pastor. It is very exciting. However, based on e-mails I have received this week after the news of the session’s decision on what to do with the building formerly used as the manse, I can tell you that there are multiple opinions and questions that will be addressed. And why would we anticipate that this would not be the case. We are a congregation that is made up of different people from different backgrounds and even come from different faith traditions before joining Fairmount. We differ in our personal faiths as well. While all being baptized in Christ, this can mean different things to different people. Our faith journeys and ministries are all different. To use the analogy of a train, some of us are on this faith train and feel like we are the engineer; we are at the front pushing forward. Others might feel as though they are barely hanging on to the caboose. But, we are all a part of this family we call Fairmount. We are different but we are one. Perhaps the test of whether we are the community that Christ calls us to be is not how we best live with each other when we are all on the same page, but how we live together as a community of Christ’s in our differences.

May the words to our final hymn also be our prayer, “ Join hands, disciples of the faith, What-e’re your race may be. All children of the living God Are surely kin to me. In Christ now meet both east and west, In him meet south and north; All Christly souls are one in Him Through-out the whole wide earth.” Amen!

Martha M. Shiverick
Sermon June 16, 2013

1 Kings 21: 1-21a
Listen to Podcast

Remember the Ancient Greek story about King Midas. Sometimes it is referred to as Midas and the Golden Touch. He was a king who loved gold. When King Midas was told that he could have anything he wanted he asked if everything he touched could turn to gold. If you recall, this delighted him totally in the beginning. He made a gold house for himself, gold furniture, golden garden and pool. The trees, the flowers… All he touched turned to gold. However, his joy was short lived and his greed destroyed him in the end. His beloved daughter was turned to gold as he embraced her and he starved as he could not eat or drink as all that touched his lips also turned to gold. In the end he begged for this great wish to be taken away. Greed, it seems, can be a very destructive power.

This morning’s scripture passage from 1 Kings is another type of ‘Midas Story’. Listen now for God’s word in the story of King Ahab and the vineyard he coveted and how his wife Jezebel connived to get him what he wanted only to have it destroy him in the end….

‘Later the following events took place; Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. And Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.” But Naboth said to Ahab, “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him; for he said, “I will not give you my ancestral inheritance.” He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.

His wife Jezebel came to him and said, ‘Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?” he said to her, “Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, ‘Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it’; but he answered, ‘I will not give you my vineyard.’” His wife Jezebel said to him, “Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will get you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.”

OK – Let’s break here for a moment before we go on with the story. I just want to make sure we are all on the same page with this. Ahab is the King or ruler of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The Bible tells how this one man did more evil than all the kings before him. Not only was he a supporter of the Canaanite god Baal, but he was an immature and selfish ruler. In this story, he covets the vineyard owned by Naboth which is next to his home. He wants it for his own to turn it into a garden.

However Naboth will not give it to him. His land was given to his ancestors and will be there for the generations of his family that come after him. By keeping the land he feels that he is honoring the ancient tribal divisions of land that are in the Book of Numbers and that this land division is part of God’s law. It is more than property to Naboth; it is also tied up with his faith and worship of Yahweh.

King Ahab cannot understand this. It is beyond his comprehension and he has no respect for Naboth’s position. He is literally made sick with envy for this vineyard he cannot have. He takes to his bed and won’t eat. This king, who has much more than he needs, would rather be die of starvation than not have the object of his desires. Yikes! What a brat! His response is so spoiled that it seems comical!

And in comes his enabler… Jezebel. She sees that the king has taken to his bed and her response is first one that I would identify as sarcasm. Do you govern Israel? This probably fueled the attitude that Ahab was down with. Then she tells Ahab to get over it. She wants him to get over the depression and to pull himself up by his bootstraps. This is not a woman who is attracted to weakness in others. Only if she can use it to her advantage! She tells him that she will get him the vineyard.

So, let’s continue with the story and see what this conniving woman does to get her husband his coveted land!

So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. She wrote in the letters, “Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, ‘You have cursed God and the king.’ Then take him out, and stone him to death.” The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. Just as it was written in the letters that she has sent to them, they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth in the presence of the people, saying, “Naboth cursed God and the king.” So they took him outside the city, and stoned him to death. Then the sent to Jezebel, saying, “Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.”

As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, “Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead.’ As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.

Jezebel’s schemes worked! She got the coveted vineyard for her husband! She plotted, she schemed, she had false charges brought up against an innocent man, and she is responsible for an innocent man’s death. Jezebel reports to her husband and tells him to go and get his vineyard. She might have used her husband’s name to get the power to carry off her plan, but there is no doubt that if she had been taken to court, she would have been found very, very guilty. Ahab was guilty, for sure, but Jezebel was the instigator while he was guilty of allowing her to carry it out.

However, we hear no more about Jezebel in this circumstance. God knew what happened, knew of Ahab’s destructive envy and that he allowed a man to die to get something that he coveted. So, listen now to the final few verses in this story, where Elijah voices God’s punishment on Ahab and his family.

Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. You shall say to him, “Thus says the Lord; Have you killed, and also taken possession?” You shall say to him, “Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.”

Ahab said to Elijah, “Have you found me, O my enemy?” He answered, “I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, I will bring disaster on you.”

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Now we can take this story on several levels and there are lessons to be learned on all of them. The first in the King Midas level where the story teaches us that things that we covet and think we want might indeed bring destruction upon us. Ahab did not really need that vineyard that had been in Naboth’s family for generations. He just wanted it. Just as we teach our children the difference between wanting something and needing it, Ahab needed to be taught that lesson as well. We might think we need material possessions, accumulated wealth, great power, or other things we covet and envy in others, but the story reminds us that coveting and envy can lead to bad consequences!

At a little deeper lever, this is also a story about good and evil. God’s people are referred to as God’s vineyard at times so perhaps it is a metaphor for the Israelites who were controlled and stomped on by people of other nations and religions, that even when it seems as though evil will win out, it does not happen. Even when we feel stomped, burned, robbed, and are deep in despair, grace will win. Good conquers evil. Joy will come at the end. The words in a song that Bo’s group, The Forest City String Band, plays sometimes says the darkest hours are just before dawn.

This is a story about justice as well. The God of our Hebrew Scriptures is a just and righteous God. If Naboth’ s death had gone unpunished, we would have cried out for the injustice of it all! A man died for another’s selfishness! A life was casually thrown away to please another’s whim and passing fancy. The statement of dogs licking Ahab’s blood where they had licked up Naboth’s seems well… justified. And the fact that justice was carried out brings good news to us. Just as we know that good will win out, we also have hope because justice will prevail as well. We hope because of what we have experienced in the past, not because of our current situations. We hope because we remember that good overcomes evil and mercy has power over pain.

The third thing that I want to bring up is the one that does not give us hope and courage, but is the difficult one that we need to wrestle with in our lives. You see, there is a painful part of this story which we might not want to uncover as it also uncovers so much of the dark side of our own lives as well. Think about the sin that Ahab really committed. Sure we can say it was greed, it was selfishness, it was that he was a really spoiled brat who was enabled by a woman without a moral ounce in her body. BUT, when you really think about it….his really big sin was not those things. It was that he was compliant to Jezebel’s evil actions. He knew what she was going to do, that there was no action that was too immoral for her to carry out to get what she wanted, and he went along with it. All Ahab had to say to stop the evil from occurring was to tell his wife jezebel that her actions were not moral. And perhaps that is his real sin, the sin for which God called upon Elijah to dictate a punishment.

So, perhaps this story is also meant to have us look at our lives and think of the ways we have perpetuated the evil of the Jezebel’s of our world. Sometimes our inaction is a really powerful action too. We allow sins to be committed by complacency which equates to support and involvement in the sin itself. When we allow the bully at school to pick on the victimized child, this story tells us that we are as guilty as the bully. When we don’t stop a racist remark or allow someone to make a joke about someone being gay we are perpetuating the sin of inequality. When we see injustice and ignore it, we are as guilty as the unjust person. That is the painful message in the story and the one we who wish to be God’s faithful disciples need to wrestle. It is easy to see Jezebel as outside our reality, we are not as evil as that woman who has no scruples or moral fiber to her being…. But God was not pleased with Ahab as well, and well, his sin is one we all, when we are honest with ourselves, might relate to as our own. The story becomes a charge to us to be responcible. It is a charge to us to not turn from what is hurtful and hateful in the world and ignore it, but to fight for love, and God’s way in all that we do. Amen.

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