Sunday, June 26, 2016

“He Took the Mantle…”

A Sermon based Upon 2 Kings 2: 1-14a
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, D.Min.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Year C: Proper 8, 6th Sunday After Pentecost, June 26th, 2016

14He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?”  (2 Kings 2:14a)

An interesting debate took place in the English parliament early this year.  They were debating whether or not to allow businessman Donald Trump to be able to travel in and out of Great Britain.  In other words, just as George Washington would not have been welcomed in 1776, neither would be Donald Trump in 2016.  But the reasons were very different.  George Washington hated British “Taxation without Representation’ upon the America colony waged war with Great Britain.  Donald trump was accused of being a ‘hate preacher’ whose speech was not only dangerous for England, but for the whole human race. www.washingtonpost.com/ world/british-parliament-set-to-debate-banning-donald-trump/2016/01/18/7351d87a-ba14-11e5-85cd-5ad59bc19432_story.html).  

I found this whole idea of Donald Trump being accused of being a ‘hate preacher’ fascinating.  Many years ago, when traveling in London, I was amazed that ‘street preachers’ were still allowed to stand on a ‘stump’ in the city and preach.  (Today they even have ‘Street Pastor’s in England whose whole ministry is conducted on the streets).   This kind of thing has almost disappeared in America, but ‘street preaching’ is still allowed in London.  But there was a catch, I guess.  The preacher would not preach hate, but had to preach love.   Because England is still officially a Christian nation, under the command of Queen and Cross, the preacher is allowed to preach, but his message must be ‘in tune’ with the core of the gospel, interpreted by Jesus once and for all as “For God so loved the world…..” 

When we think of the necessity of preaching filled with love and not hate, following God’s divine spirit, and not our own human feelings, we need to consider today’s final text from the ministry of Elijah.  Elijah is about to ‘depart’ but he needed to leave his mission and mantle to his younger apprentice, Elisha.  Realizing that his spiritual leader is about to leave, Elisha desired not to have a single blessing, but to have a ‘a double share of his spirit’ (v.9).  This was not something Elijah could promise, but after Elijah ascended, Elisha picked up his mantle and struck the water asking “Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” With one single tap the waters ‘parted’.  Now, the ‘spirit’ would work through Elisha, which was even more miraculous than even his amazing master and predecessor (but who’s counting).

WHERE IS THE LORD
The story of Elijah leaving his ‘mantle’ for Elisha is an important story for all- time, because the succession of power and authority is as much a question today as it ever was.   It is always important for any family, any business, or any institution to be able to ‘pass down’ the things that have been accomplished or learned to the next generation.   But it’s never that easy is it?   

All of us can think of children inheriting the wealth of their parents to their own detriment and ruin?   We can also think of how privilege and power is risky business, especially when it is not earned or appreciated.  In our time, when many younger folks question authority or established institutions and much of what is is being questioned or unappreciated today, how important is it that a ‘mantle’ be passed down at all?  Why not just discard everything that has been and start everything over fresh and new.  

As we started with the questions Donald Trump’s approach to politics has been, as an outsider, today’s text has something important to say because one of the things that drew many people toward that wealthy Businessman is that he said that he would not take up a political ‘mantle’ and was NOT like all the other politicians in Washington.   I recall a discussion I had with a couple of friends in Statesville, who were telling me that they were probably going to vote for Trump, if he was nominated, because they said he was saying things that needed to be said and he was promising to do things needing to be done.   “Yes, he was a bit extreme, they admitted, but they implied that even with his ‘rhetorical flaws’ (as one nicely put it), he was better than what we now had in Washington.  As a preacher I told them that I understood their frustration, but then admitted, “But how can I as a preacher of what is good and right, agree with so much of his speech of anger and hate?”  How can we just, at this moment, write off or suspend all the proper ways of being human or being a national leader, to think that by doing this, we will find someone who will ‘save’ our country?

“Where is the LORD God of Elijah?” Do you see the implications of Elisha’s question?  When Elisha asked this he was hoping he would have God’s blessing for facing the future.  But he also realized that to have God’s blessing, he had to build upon what God had done that was right in the past.  Elisha could not move ahead, without also having Elijah’s blessing, which meant remembering, realizing, and building upon the right that went on before.  

This is also our question, and the question of each new generation: How do we balance the spiritual, national, moral and political needs we have in this moment, so that we do not forget or neglect the good values and principles we have learned in the past?  This is question of every age, not just Elijah’s, but also ours.  It is not only the question of politics, but it is also the question of prophetic or spiritual leadership.  In order to move on to do what God is leading us toward, how much do we need to think, reflect, consider, and weigh from the past to build the future that is still to come?  If we don’t link these two, then it may not just be personal ‘inconsistency’, but also social ‘instability’ that becomes norm.   I recall a teacher I had from a Seminary in Richmond, from another denomination, whose named was “Charlie Brown”, warning us pastors to remember how ministry is unpredictable and that we will need God’s spirit be our strength and our guide.   He told of how he had learned this the hard way.  He had worked for years, even to the point of burn-out, trying to lead his church to do some things they needed to do in the community.  He had put his own life on the line many times trying to move them forward.  But do you know what happened as soon as he retired?  A new preacher was called who led the church not only to undo all their recent ministry accomplishments, but to move the church’s ministry in a completely different direction.  They not only did not build on their past, but they moved toward a completely different future.  They would not allow the ‘mantle’ of one pastor to be carried forth to influence the spiritual ministry of the next.   His point to us was clear; “Pastors, don’t lead your church where it doesn’t want to go.  If your church doesn’t what to go where you are going, then find another church so you are not wasting your time.”

If we don’t have a vision that connects your future to what has been done in the past, then how can you know that you are moving in the right direction--in God’s direction---the only direction that is not just striking out in your own direction, which could eventually be a ‘road that leads nowhere’?  Elisha did not want his future ministry to go nowhere, but he wanted to connect what God had been doing with what God would still do.  Elisha wanted his ministry to make a difference for the future, because it connected with everything God had done in the most recent past.  

A DOUBLE SHARE OF YOUR SPIRIT  
With his eye on the future, Elisha kept following Elijah around and would not let him out of his sight, not even for one moment.  It’s even comical how it all unfolds. 

On their way to Gilgal together,  Elijah tells Elisha to ‘stay’ behind, while he goes on to Bethel, but Elisha will not let him go.  “I will not leave you” Elisha says (v.2).  Again, Elijah tells Elisha that he must go down to Jericho, but again, Elisha will not let him go.  “No, I will not leave you” (v. 4).  Finally, for a third time, Elijah tells Elisha that he has to make a trip to Jordan, but again, Elisha insists on going with his master (v. 6).  Elisha will not let Elijah out of his sight, nor will he let anyone dissuade him (as different prophets attempted to do, vs. 3, 5) because he feared Elijah would leave without granting one last request (v. 9).   This request became known when Elijah enabled them to cross the Jordan river, by touching it with his mantle, and parting the waters, after which he turned to Elisha and asked: “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you."   With this question Elisha gave the most awaited request: "Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit" (2 Ki. 2:9 NRS).   

Do we want what Elisha wanted?   Do we want to build on the ministry of the past and make our ministry even better for the future?  Elisha realized that he would not only lose what had been accomplished, but he would also lose what could be accomplished, unless there was some kind of connection between the to.  The question for us how do we make this connection happen?  How do we make sure that there is not only a ‘double portion’ for the future, but that we don’t disregard and the past and destroy the future that depends on the accomplishments of the past?  

Several years ago, a large church near mine, was growing leaps and bounds.  It had be able to develop a youth ministry that continued to grow so much, that the church not only had to go to three different worship services to accommodate all the newcomers, but also decided to turn the middle worship service into a completely ‘youth’ oriented worship---with a style all its own.  Of course, this was happening with the blessing of the pastor and the church as a whole, and it did start out that way.   But as the youth continued to explore and express their own style of worship, the church began to raise questions.  The questions were so harsh to the existing youth leadership, that one day, without warning the youth pastors decided to move the ‘youth worship’ not only out of the church, but they found an abandoned ‘church’ building down the road and pulled over 700 people out of the existing church of about 2,000.  In other words, because they now had a mind of their own, they felt that they did not need the church that had established them in the past. 

Most of us can’t imagine anything like that happening in our church, but it is something that seems to be happening in the church world today, as many churches have experimented with new worship styles that ended up in ‘worship wars’, and sometimes youth verses adult wars, that have done more to divide than to establish the ministry of the church for the changing world around us.   How do we ask for ‘a double share’ of God’s spirit upon the future generation?  How do we pass on this ‘double share’ so that the God’s work has continuity, stability and newness, but not shallowness, instability, and recklessness, which may lead to heartbreak, brokenness, division and loss of ministry to all kinds of people, young and old, and not just to a limited ministry to a select few, while losing our witness in the world?
I WILL NOT LEAVE YOU
The heart of ministry is not following fades, nor is it limited to finding new trends and angles; but the heart of ministry needs to include, just like it was in Elijah and Elisha’s day, the passing on of the ‘mantle’ of ministry from one age of people to the next generation.   We should never be content to limiting God’s ministry by making it only ministry for and to ourselves, but we have to continue to enlarge, to expand, and to encourage God’s ministry by finding ways to mentor and pass the work down to the next generation.  

But this is something that churches have not always been good at, is it?  Too often, because we need ministry ourselves, we tend to focus the ministry on us in the moment, not toward those coming up next.   We have often understood the ministry of the church to be a ministry for children and seniors, but we have not been as good at developing church for those in the middle, or for those who are coming of age in a new age.  As a result, churches have often become places where the twenty to forty somethings go missing unnecessarily, because they go AWOL--- MIA, or worst, DOA.  This has happened because we have overlooked a story of the Elijah passing the mantle down to Elisha and have not been as good at connecting the church of the past with the church of the future.

So finally, what should we learn from this great story?  In other words, what must we learn so that the ministry today can be even more effective for the future than it has been in the past?   This story suggests two very important lessons: The Elijah Church—the church of the past and present must learn to ask the church of the future:  “What do you want me to do for you?” and the Elisha Church---the church of the future must also dare to ask the Church of the present:  “Give me a double share of your spirit?”

We don’t have time to unpack what this might mean, but we must see one answer that makes these two questions both ‘askable’ and ‘answerable’.  In the past, the church has run its ministry mostly based upon occasional, open-ended or volunteer relationships.  In other words, we have hoped for the church to have a future based upon the people coming up and ‘accidently’ taking over someday.   We have done this without any real, specific, or intentional relationships that could help make the future of the church happen.  We just expected this to happen, so were content to do the same things, trusting that our little Elisha’s would someday catch on, or assume their responsibility for the church of the future. 

Unfortunately, this isn’t happening.  It isn’t happening either because our youth are moving away, have less interests, or have gone another way, which is not the way we have gone.   One thing for sure: if we keep doing the same things, in the same ways, expecting ‘a double share’ of continued ministry without intentionally passing the mantle down to them, we and they are headed for a rude awakening.  The future of any kind of ministry in a future that is much less church oriented, will depend on some kind of intentional ‘mantle passing’, programed ‘mentoring’, or intentional ‘disciple’ programs within the church of today.   The challenge is that for this to happen, the young Elishas must ask for it and the older Elijahs must offer it.  

Brent Younger, tells about Bob Hammond, a very talented artist came to his church in 1967 and was the activities director for almost 30 years.  Bob loved and led family nights, mission trips, summer camps, square dances, basketball leagues, softball teams, golf tournaments and, most recently, a Parkinson’s exercise class.  At his funeral on people told funny stories about sandwiches made with toothpaste instead of mayonnaise, toilets at the desks of new staff members on their first day, and a plan for ping pong balls in the trumpet pipes of the organ.

Bob always had a twinkle in his eye, but the fun was a cover for the way he had a heart for young people.  Bob gave himself to helping teenagers grow into Christian adults.  At his funeral, there were fifty-year-olds who wouldn’t have been part of a church, had it not been for Bob.  Younger wrote, because of his heart for ministry and mentoring, ‘the ripples from his ministry will continue for generations’  (From Brent Younger’s sermon, “What do you want?”).


Having a church that continues boils down to having young Elishas who are willing to say to the older Elijahs “I will not leave you…” just as it also depends on an older Elijahs who are willing to openly ask, “What is it that you want me to do for you?”  It is this kind of open, genuine, and honest engagement that builds bridge from a ministry of the past to the ministry of the future.  For until the older are willing to dare to ask the younger ‘what is it you want’ and the younger are willing to say to the older ‘we will not leave you’, there is no promise for a future that ‘doubles’ or ‘betters’ what has come before.  But if, we are willing to find ways to work together, share the vision,  be mentors and receive mentoring, so we can pass on the mantle of spirit,  the we can all achieve what we need, and realize what the church needs for its ministry.   As we all should know, there is always enough of God’s spirit to go around to each and every generation.  There is always enough, that is, if some are willing ‘offer’ and others are willing to ‘ask.   Amen.  

Sunday, June 19, 2016

“I Alone Am Left”

A Sermon based Upon 1 Kings 19: 1-15a
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, D.Min.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Year C: Proper 7, 5th Sunday After Pentecost, June 19th, 2016

“…"I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away." (1 Ki. 19:10 NRS)

Today I want to start with an old story about two fellers who didn’t like each other.  One named Ole, and the other named Clarence.   Ole lived across the Minnesota River from Clarence Bunsen, whom he didn't like at all. They were yelling across the river at each other all the time.  Ole would yell to Clarence, "If I had a vay to cross dis river, I'd come ofver dere an beat you up good, yeah sure ya betcha by golly!"

This went on for years. Finally, the state built a bridge across the river right there by their houses.  Ole's wife, Lena , says, "Now iss yer chance, Ole. Vhy doncha go over dere and beat up dat Clarence like you said you vud?"  Ole replied, "OK, by yimmy, I tink I vill do yust dat!"

Ole started for the bridge, but he saw a sign on the bridge and stopped to read it, then turned around and came back home. Lena asked, "Vhy did you come back?"
Ole said, " Lena , I tink I changed my mind 'bout beatin' up dat Clarence. You know, vhen I yell at him from across da river he don't look so big. But dey put a sign on da bridge

Today we consider another moment from the ministry of the prophet Elijah.  Elijah was one more powerful prophet, but one day, as they say, Elijah ‘met his match.’  Even though we haven’t covered all the high moments of Elijah’s ministry, this must have been the lowest point.   Elijah was on the run for his life.  He felt as if he was the only one left who had not forsaken their promise to God.  To say the least, to feel small and defeated is not a very good place to be.  But as I hope we will all learn, it may the most necessary place to be with God.

I HAVE BEEN VERY ZEALOUS …. (10a)
The highest moment in Elijah’s ministry came just before this lowest one.   Elijah has just called down ‘fire’ from heaven and then slaughtered all 450 false prophets of Ba’al.  But even before the last cinder of coal went cold, this Elijah’s brave heart fells him and he is on the run.    

Last week we encountered Jezebel, the notorious wife of King Ahab, who seemed to have worn the ‘pants’ around the kingdom.   After hearing what Elijah did to her ‘prophets’, Jezebel was outraged and sought revenge ‘to make (his) life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow’ (v. 2).   Whatever made Elijah’s heart shudder in fear of Jezebel’s wrath more than 450 false male prophets (she was the King’s wife, you know), he must have known that she could and would back up her threat.  Jezebel is Elijah’s “Clarence” across the bridge. 

But after making his escape, Elijah began to realize just what this meant.   Here is the prophet of the LORD running from mean woman, albeit a very powerful and mean woman.  But here’s the problem for his large, male ego.  She’s a woman.  He’s supposed to be God’s big, strong, courageous prophet.   For a prophet to be running from anyone, let alone this Jezebel of a woman does not help his ego.   So, when Elijah stops to catch his breath, seeking the shade of a ‘solitary broom tree’, he came to realize what was happening and starts feeling down about himself, ending up so depressed, that he asked the LORD to ‘take his life’ (v.4).   With despair and exhaustion Elijah lay down and falls asleep under that broom tree.

Finding such a story in the Bible is really incredible.   We live in a world where the recipe for success has become ‘never let them see you sweat’.  I did a little research on that popular phrase.   It’s only been around since 1984 and came from a Gillette Deodorant commercial.  The commercial featured three celebrities who mentioned three ‘nevers’ in their respective professions.   Each of them mentioned two things that they would never let other people do for them.  Then, all three ended with the line, “And Never let them see you sweat.”   In other words, don’t let them know or see your weaknesses.

While that may be a good strategy for winning a football game, beating out other competitors in business, or becoming the best actor or actress, it’s not a good philosophy for living a genuine, honest, open, compassionate spiritual life.   (For goodness sakes, this was a commercial!)   In order to truly grow in faith, to gain spiritual strength, or to get closer to God, we need to know and understand our own weaknesses.  We need to come clean not only with who we are, but also, to honestly and sincerely face who we aren’t.   There is no place for ‘supermen’ or ‘supergirls’ among the people of God.  There is no place in God’s grace to put ‘perfect’ people on pedestals.  The Bible doesn’t do this.   We shouldn’t either.  Throughout Scripture God uses people who are much less than perfect.  Think of lying Abraham, boastful Joseph,  stammering Moses, adulterous David, and now, right in front of us,  egotistical Elijah.  We need also to picture New Testament characters of an over-bearing Simon Peter,  a vengeful James and John, a murderous Saul, or even a fretful Jesus, who in the Garden of Gethsemane prayed for ‘this cup to pass’ from him.   If we can remember that the greatest heroes of faith, also have weaknesses and flaws, we might learn how God could also bless the ‘weakness’ in us.  

When Mother Teresa’s personal letters were discovered, they gave great details about many of her personal feelings.  What was most shocking was how she had confessed how she had ‘spent almost 50 years of her life without sensing the presence of God in her life’.   She once wrote to a priest, Pastor Michael Van der Peet, saying, “Jesus has a very special love for you.  But as for me---the silence and the emptiness is so great---that I look and do not see, ---Listen and do not hear….”  This saintly woman who said it is not enough to say ‘you love God, when you do not love your neighbor’ or that ‘we must join with Jesus on his cross by feeding the hungry and helping the hurting’ and unapologically condemned abortion and bemoaned youth drug addiction, writing that “Christ is everywhere---in our hearts, in the poor we meet, Christ is in the smile we give and in the smile we receive.’   But as she gave and served among the poorest and darkest places on earth, she also gave her joy and confidence away.   “The tongue moves (in prayer), but does not speak…” she wrote to Pastor Michael.   “I want you to pray for me---that I let God have a free hand (in my life).   In more than 40 letters she bemoaned  the ‘dryness,” “darkness,” “loneliness” and “torture” she was undergoing, even to the point of having doubts about the existence of heaven or God.   The most fitting title of the book of these desperate writings?  “Come, be My Light!”  (http://time.com/4126238/mother-teresas-crisis-of-faith/).

“There is perhaps nothing worse than reaching the top of the ladder and discovering that you’re on the wrong wall”  (Joseph Campbell).   But how could such a thing happen to a saint who served so wonderfully?   How could it have happened to a prophet who has just toppled 450 false prophets or raised a dead child?    How could Elijah be so strong and courageous in one moment, and then fall so fast to become so weak the next?   His life, just like our own lives, can be ‘roller coaster’---filled with valleys and curves.   “How can you endure such curved, hilly roads?, a Flordia girl once asked me.”  I answered: “How do you Floridians stay awake on straight, boring streets?  Can you have an interesting life driving straight lines?

But sometimes, so lows are very low, aren’t they?   I’ll never forget hearing about a very gifted, much beloved pastor of a large congregation who once burned out while trying to serve all the many needs of his congregation.  Then, unexpectedly, he gets up one Sunday and resigns, telling the congregation that he has cared for all of them, but they haven’t really cared at all about him, or his family.  So now, he must ‘run’ away from ministry so he could take care of his family, and himself.   No one can give, and give, and give, without needing time to recharge, refresh, and rejuvenate.  But the never ending way of ministry, with all the constant and overwhelming needs, seldom take our very human ‘limits’ into consideration.     As I was writing this, a friend of mine called to tell me she was sending me a copy of a book written by a pastor in Greensboro, who after retiring has written a ‘tell-all’ book about the things he needed to say, but could not say when he was a pastor.  All those years his congregation came to him with all their problems, even sometimes with their problems about him, but he said they never were willing to listen to his problems, especially not his problems with them.   Now, it was his turn.  I said, “Good luck with that!”

Facing our own weaknesses is important for any of us who are trying to live a life of service, who have demanding jobs, or have the daily burdens of caring for others.   If you are not taking care of yourself, without warning, you may find yourself in a crash of energy, running on empty, with nothing left to give.  This has an even better chance of happening when you have been successful, or when you are doing the right thing than when you have just be doing your own thing.  When you give and give without taking time for yourself, one day you wake up to find you have nothing left, because unfortunately, you’ve given away yourself.   

I ALONE AM LEFT…. (10b)
Again, it was not Elijah’s failures, but it was his success that caused Jezebel to come after him.   He was on the run because of the good he had accomplished.    When the evil came back, it just evil just kept coming and he had given all he could give.   He couldn’t take it.  He ran.

When Elijah finally reached a shady spot he quickly fell asleep and dreamed about angels coming to him, encouraging him ‘to get up and eat’.   He had to be dreaming because and angel comes a second time, asking him again to ‘get up and eat, otherwise he won’t have strength’ to continue on his journey (v. 7).   After the second spiritual meal is offered, we are told that Elijah gained enough spiritual and physical strength to ‘walk for forty days and night until he came to Horeb’-- that is Mt. Sinai---‘the mountain of God’ located deep in the Arab desert (v. 8).  

When Elijah finally reached the safety of God’s mountain, he spent the night in a cave, where the word of the LORD came asking, “What are you doing here, Elijah” (v. 9)?  Isn’t it interesting that after the angel of the LORD came to him twice,  God wonders what’s going on?   Of course, this story is about what God does or doesn’t know, but it’s about the ‘battle’ going on inside of Elijah.  “I have been very zealous for the LORD…” (v. 10)  he answers, but look where it’s got him!   What good has it really done?  What does it really matter?  Things have only gotten worst instead of better.  The good ones who were with me, are now all gone.
I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away  (19:14).

This was the lowest moment for the prophet, but his greatest pain is not simply the threat upon his life, but it is the complaint you could hear from prophet after prophet, preacher and preacher, pastor after pastor, and even disciple after disciple; the most difficult challenge of being a Christian and a leader is one thing: loneliness.  When you know what others don’t know, or what others don’t want to know, and when you do what others don’t do, or you have to say what others are not willing to say or face,  often the greatest inward pain of being the voice of truth is the feeling of being all alone.  

A 2006 Study from the respected Barna Institute interviewed 627 Pastor’s around the country and over 61% reported to have “close friends”.   Although Scripture says that it is ‘not good for man to be alone’ (Gen. 2:18), one unintended result of ministry can still be loneliness; loneliness that come from doing good, which is not good for a church or a minister.    It is something that can happen to the best of us, even when we aren’t expected it.  Several years ago, I was attempting to lead a church with Sunday night services in a summer time evangelistic effort.   I proposed that the church buy tickets to a local minor-league baseball game and give these tickets for members to give a way to unchurched friends.  Everyone was excited about the upcoming event which would take the place of our Sunday evening service.  On the Sunday morning of the event, I reminded everyone of the event and shared that we had a few extra tickets.  When I was shaking hands after the service, one of the devout ladies stopped, looked me in the eyes and said; “How dare you call off Sunday night worship for a baseball game!”  She walked away as I tried to explain that Jesus called us to seek the lost sheep.   She just would not hear anything.  To her, I had failed to be a responsible pastor.  It hurt me that she was hurt, but who could I tell?  Better yet, being a very wonderful, respected lady in the church, who would she complain to?   I was trying to lead to church to do good, but she was making me feel awful for doing it.    This is the loneliness of ministry.  Sometimes you see what others don’t, you must say what others don’t want to hear, and you have to do what others don’t want done.   

I’m not trying to make this a ‘pity-party’ for preachers, nor to gain sympathy.  Everyone has their lonely tasks and low moments in life, and there are growing challenges of being Christian leaders in an unchurched world.  But what I want do what you to take from this message is that ‘loneliness’ can happen to the best of us, especially when we are doing good and right things.   We need to remember this, especially as we pray and support our leaders, even when we may or may not agree with them on everything.   Churches need to especially remember that it is not just the pastor’s job to support them, but it is also the church’s job to support, care about, and befriend their leaders, especially their pastors, who pull up stakes and move into communities away from family and friends.    

THE LORD WAS NOT IN THE FIRE (12)
Of course the lows and loneliness that can come in life or ministry, is not just something that happens to prophets and pastors.   It can happen to any of us.  What is most important for us to grasp is that it will even happen because we are good people, and even in the moment we are doing the most good, life may suddenly turn against us.  

This is exactly what happened to the family of Ana Greene.   It was a happy Christian family of four,  Dad, Mom, Brother and Sister, until the unthinkable happened.  Ana became one of the 20 child victims and 6 teachers who were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, just before Christmas 2012.   After that terrible event, the Father Jimmy Greene, a very talented jazz saxophonist, turned to music to help deal with his loss.  The album that was released was nominated for 2 Grammys, especially for a song he wrote and sang,  “Ana’s Way”, which was a tribute to this six year old daughter’s short life.  How do you deal with your grief in this way?  How have you been able to take something so tragic and turn it into music?  Many couples split up because of all the pain they suffer.  “How did you do this,“ the reported asked.  The husband and wife answered together, in unison, with only one word:  “God!”   The explained that they would not have been able to bear it, had it not been for their faith and faith community.  “They still bring food to our doorstep, even after 4 years”.  (http://www.cbsnews.com/news/sandy-hook-victim-dad-jimmy-greene-nominated-two-grammys-jazz-album-inspired-daughter/).

The most important part of Elijah’s story comes at the end.  After he has made his escape to the ‘Mountain of God’, he found God’s presence not in the wind, the earthquake, and not even in the fire, but he met God’s voice in the ‘silence’ and stillness (19:11-12).  It was in that ‘silence’ that his soul was both questioned and challenged to get up and even told to ‘go’ and ‘return’ and even to go on the ‘way to the wilderness’ because God’s promise will find him,  even there (vs. 15a).


What Jimmy Greene found, is not what any of us want to find; music even in the midst of terrible grief.  What Elijah found, is also not what any of us hope to find; not all the answers or power we want, but the sweet stillness of God’s abiding promise and presence.  Yet this is exactly the promise and presence that restored courage to this prophet.   Here, I can’t help but remember the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz, who the Wizard finally said, had had courage all along; but he had to find it within himself, when he met it in a moment of being on the journey with new friends.   God is the friend, and God is the presence, who will also help us find the courage and the strength that is already within, even there in our own weakness, where we also can know the God who, can say more with silence, that the world can ever say with all it’s many, many words.   As Jimmy Greene said,  “Music has a language all it’s own.”  And so does God,  Jimmy.  And he knows that too.   I hope you hear that too.  Amen.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

“Scoundrels, All of Us!”

A Sermon based Upon 1 Kings 21: 1-21
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, D.Min.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Year C: Proper 6, 4th Sunday After Pentecost, June 12th, 2016

“The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth in the presence of the people…(1 Ki. 21:13 NRS)

The late Mya Angelo, who finished her career teaching nearby at Wake Forest University, once wisely said, “Do the best you can until you know better.  Then, when you know better; do better.”

Today’s text from 1st Kings, chapter 21 is about people who should have known better.  These tragic events take place during the reign of King Ahab of Israel in the 9th century.   It is the story of Naboth’s Vineyard.  When reading this story from the New Revised Version, the NIV, and other modern versions, you find one of 13 biblical references to men who are called ‘scoundrels’ (1 Kings 21: 13).   If you recall, the priest Eli’s sons were also called ‘scoundrels’ (1 Sam. 2:12) and so were a few others (2 Chron. 13: 7). 

Other translations use the word ‘worthless’ or ‘liar’ instead of scoundrel, but the King James used the untranslated Hebrew phrase, “Ben Belial” or ‘sons of Belial’ or “Beliar”.    Ben Belial was never fully defined in the Bible but identified in the Dead Sea Scrolls as an angel of deceit, inspiring sin in those who give in to Satan’s deceptive powers.   Since the meaning is so low down, newer versions have preferred to translate “Ben Belial” as ‘scoundrel’ --someone who is obviously ‘dishonest or unscrupulous (Google).   To clarify, a scoundrel simply someone who ‘knows better’, but does not ‘do better.’  

It may seem rude to suggest that all of us are ‘scoundrels’, but it fits ancient and modern perceptions of the dark side of human nature from Moses to Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  From a communist concentration camp, Solzhenitsyn wrote,   “If only it were all so simple!  If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.  And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” (The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956, quoted from Goodreads.com).  If Solzhenitsyn is right, the two scoundrels in this story ‘way back when’ still have something to say to potential of a ‘scoundrel’ who could be lurking in any of us.   So, let’s hear again this most powerful and tragic story of Naboth’s vineyard with great concern and extreme caution. 

GIVE ME…
Strangely enough, the great evil that took place in this story started with two simple words: “Give Me….”

Just focus on the implication of these two words (21:2) spoken by a King who was already more privileged than most and certainly already had enough.  Yet when King Ahab saw the choice plot of land belonging to Naboth, being accustomed to having the best, he wanted that land too. 

There was a problem.  The land had been in Naboth’s family for generations.   Naboth was not willing to sell, even for the right price.   Unlike King Ahab, money does not mean everything to Naboth.   When King Ahab has realized that Naboth will not budge or negotiate a price, the King goes home depressed and  distraught.  When his wife Jezebel sees him, she discovers him pouting like a child.  She can't stand seeing this weakness in her husband.  She wants him to have whatever he wants.  You could even say that she thinks he is entitled to getting or having everything he wants.   He’s a King, for goodness sakes; shouldn't whatever belongs to anyone in his kingdom really belong to him.  Isn’t this fair when you are the King? 

Of course, in a day when we all live like Kings,  having more than most Kings of the world ever imagined and being citizens of the richest, wealthiest nation on earth, we might feel a bit entitled too, might we not?  Last year, a social researcher wrote about the decline of parenting in America.  On national TV, he told about the changes he was observing around the dinner tables of America.  It used to be that parents would insist that their child eat their vegetables or there would be absolutely NO dessert.   Now, he observes, it has become the parent’s duty to grant the child’s wishes.  Many parents today, he suggests, beg their children to ‘please take a couple more bites of their veggies before they start on their dessert.’  Now, it is children who make the demands in the home, rather than the parents (http://www.leonardsax.com/books/the-collapse-of-parenting/).

When Ahab pouted over Naboth’s vineyard, he didn't have good parenting either.  His Father Omri was known, not only for his lack of morals and parenting skills.  Ahab’s childhood had been so underwhelming we too might have felt sorry for his pitiful behavior.  What makes him less embarrassing is what happens next.

GO TAKE…       
When Jezebel finds the King depressed, not eating, and whining about what he was unable to acquire, she is livid.  ‘Do you not govern  in Israel?   Are you not the King?  She can't believe his unwillingness to get everything he wanted and she can't stand having such a weak husband.    She informed him that she will have to ‘wear the pants’ in this family and she will get that vineyard from Naboth. 

Unknown to her husband, Jezebel writes letters to the city leaders in Naboth’s hometown, signing the King’s name, instructing those leaders in exactly how they should frame Naboth.   They will find two no-count scoundrels who will falsely accused him of blasphemy and treason to get Naboth judged and executed.   This is how she will try to justify her move to get Naboth’s vineyard seized and confiscated.   So, after learning of Naboth’s execution, the very  next words from Jezebel expresses a complete disregard for what is right and just when she commands her husband, Ahab the King, to ‘GO AND TAKE possession of the vineyard of Naboth of Jezereel…for Naboth is dead’ (21:15). 

Go and Take!”  Doesn’t that sound strangely familiar?  During World War II, one of Adolf Hitler’s closest advisors was Hermann Goering. Reichsmarshall Goering was not only the head of the Luftwaffe, the German air force, but he also played a major role in the Holocaust, where the Nazis imprisoned and put to death more than six million Jews, Gypsies, and mentally disabled people in the hopes of creating some kind of a master race, some kind of a racially pure society.

After the war ended, and while he and other Nazis were having their war crimes trials at Nuremberg, Goering sat down for an interview.  During the course of that interview he made some rather chilling statements. Goering admitted that when it comes to war, the common people never want to go to war: the people in Russia don’t want to go to war, the people in England don’t want to go to war, the people in the United States don’t want to go to war—even the common people in Nazi Germany didn’t want to go to war.

But, Goering said, it’s not the people who get to decide whether they go to war or not—it’s the leaders of the country that determine that.  According to Goering, no matter whether you live in a country that’s ruled by a democracy, a parliament, a fascist dictatorship, or a communist dictatorship, it’s always a simple matter to drag the people into war. The people can always be brought to do the bidding of the leaders, he said. It’s easy. All you have to do is tell the people they are being attacked, and then denounce the pacifists. All you have to do is denounce those people for their lack of patriotism and for exposing the country to even greater danger. If you’re a leader and want to push your country into war, Goering said, that’s all you need to do.

The worst times in human history are often unleashed with these words:  “Go take…!”   Because what we can have in this world is always ‘limited’, unless there is morality and law, and of course, spiritual values that encourage responsible living according to these laws, society will be constantly be threatened by the strongest or ‘fittest’ who threaten the lives of the weak and most vulnerable.    In Naboth’s story, both bad politics and bad religion were used as grounds to murder Naboth and seize his Vineyard, rather than to uphold justice and righteousness to respect rights of this ‘little man’.   But why did Jezebel think she could get away with it?  Why did the citizens of Naboth’s town go along with her scheme?   Why were ‘scoundrels’ available who would carry out her plan?   The evil at the top is only allowed to flourish when the good is also missing at the bottom.  But who will stand up for the little man, the weak, the most vulnerable and the suffering in this world?   It is this constant question of social and political justice that continues to fuel the need for good politics and healthy religion.  

Martin Niemoller was a German submarine captain during the Great War of 1914-18. After being ordained a Lutheran minister, Niemoller tried to live the quiet life of a parish pastor. But then came the Barmen Declaration of 1938 which compelled a number of German Christians to form the Confessing Church. Niemoller was later imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, from which he wrote that famous statement:
When Hitler attacked the Jews, I was not a Jew, therefore, I was not concerned. And when Hitler attacked the Catholics, I was not a Catholic, and therefore, I was not concerned. And when Hitler attacked the unions and the industrialists, I was not a member of the unions and I was not concerned. When he attacked the homosexuals and lesbians, they were on society’s margins, and I was not concerned. Then, Hitler attacked me and the Protestant church—and there was nobody left to be concerned.

What’s your life worth anyway? What’s mine worth? You go to a funeral and you hear all those wonderful testimonies about a person’s life, and you remember how much gets left out, how much is forgotten or "disremembered" on such an occasion. And you wonder, "What will people say about me when I die? What will my life have amounted to?"  Or, even more compelling, what will God think? Will I have to depend fully on mercy and little on justice when I stand before my Creator, or will God will simply look at me and ask, "Well?"?

Jesus did not conduct a life of hiding on the sidelines.  Jesus saw the constant threats to the most vulnerable of his day; the outcasts, the sick, the women, and even the cruel religious prejudice against ‘sinners’ and didn’t keep contributing to the taking, but started a ministry of ‘giving’.   Jesus also knew that a new way of looking at politics or having religion at the top would have to be based on a new way of looking at life at the bottom.   “Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat, drink, or what you will wear” (Matt. 6: 31).   There would be no change in the corrupt ways of the world at the top until there was also a change in how the common people lived their lives too.   The people at the top, with all their means, wealth and power, seldom change unless they have too.   Jesus knew this too, but he also knew that those living at the bottom, when they had a true spiritual hunger for justice and righteousness, could outnumber, outlive, and outsource the powers and authorities of darkness, when they were determine to walk toward God’s true light.

I HAVE FOUND YOU
When, in this story, it looked as if Jezebel’s dastardly scheme was unseen, in the dark, without any negative consequence, we finally come to the words a  King Ahab, a Richard Nixon, or a Bill Clinton, never wants to here, :“I have found you….”  For just as abruptly as the prophet Elijah came on the scene the first time,  now this unwanted prophet who stands for justice and righteousness returns.  This time, however, the King recognizes him as his own worst nightmare.   “You have found me, O my enemy.”  As the King acknowledges he has been caught, Elijah affirms the inevitable and the obvious: “I have found you.”

Now that Ahab's ‘sins have found him out’ the prophet hurls pronouncement after pronouncement of judgments and divine retribution upon Jezebel, upon Ahab, and upon his royal dynasty and family.  Why is all this judgment about to unfold:  The prophet says: You have sold yourself" (1 Kings 21:20b)—that’s the most damaging accusation of all, isn’t it?   This is an accusation that still strikes at our own twenty-first century hearts.  We talk a lot about the true self, coming to one’s self, finding one’s self.  So to be accused of selling one’s self—that is the sale we too have made many times.   Whether it was for popularity when we were in high school or college, for the love at whatever price of virtue or integrity when we were in our twenties and thirties, for money and success any time it was offered.   We too stand before Elijah or whatever prophet God calls before us, because we know that also, we are a people who have, and are still capable of selling out our souls to ‘have’ or to ‘take’ more for ourselves.

But fortunately, this is not the final word of the story, because in a surprising move, when confronted with his sin, Ahab actually shows genuine sorrow and publicly repents.  Even Elijah the prophet did not see that coming.   In response to Ahab’s sincerity of heart, Elijah allows that the King will be spared of immediate retaliations, but his unrepentant wife and his dynasty and legacy will not.  However we take this, this very strange turn of events points us to a God who remains merciful and gracious, even when we are not.  This does not mean God will rescind his justice nor will he revoke all consequences of judgement upon sin, but God will be forgiving and merciful to the sinner who genuinely repents and turns his life toward God’s light of truth.

In one of Eugene O’Neill’s plays, The Great God Brown, there is a scene toward the end in which a man is on his deathbed. He’s very frightened. At his side is a woman who has become something of a mother-figure for him. She speaks to him as if he were a child, "Go to sleep, Billy. It’s all right." He replies, "Yes, mother." Then Billy starts to explain what he has experienced, why he’s the person he is.
         "It was dark, and I couldn’t see where I was going, and they all picked on me."
          The woman then says, "I know. But you’re tired now. Go to sleep."
          And he answers, "And when I wake up?"
         She replies, "The sun will be rising."
          Then Billy interrupts her with great seriousness: "To judge the living and the dead."  And adds in great fear, "I don’t want justice. I want love.
The woman then replies quietly, "There is only love." And as he dies, Billy begins to repeat the words of the only prayer he knows, "Our Father, who art in heaven...."  (As quoted by Eugene Winkler at www.goodpreacher.com).

Neither these harsh consequences toward Jezebel or Ahab’s dynasty, nor Ahab’s repentance will bring Naboth back to life or fully compensate in this world for the damage that has been done.   In a similar way, the justice of God seems forever slow to be realized, but we must remember that according to Scripture, this slackness or slowness is due to God’s desire for ‘no one to perish, but for all to come to repentance’.   In this regard, even Elijah the prophet must wait, just as Ahab does, allowing “God to be God” until the time when all God’s judgments are complete as the truth becomes fully known. 


Until that time in God’s future, and by God’s grace, also in ours, we must continue to live, love, serve and hope that the justice of God will continue to be colored by the love and mercy of this God who gives everyone the opportunity to know and experience the life-changing nature of ‘amazing’ grace.   It is only ‘grace’ that can save us from being the people we are, which can also save us from being the people we often aren’t.    If you allow this God of ‘grace’ to find you, then you too can make the truth your friend, rather than your worst enemy.   Amen.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

“Go and Do”

A Sermon Based Upon 1 Kings 17: 17-24
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.  
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Proper 5: 3nd Sunday After Pentecost, June 5th, 2016

Elijah said to her, "Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son.” (1 Ki. 17:13 NRS).

I’ll never forget how an east German friend of mine once commented to me how he just couldn’t fathom how American’s live happily in a country where there are so many natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes.  “Don’t you always live in fear?” he asked. Hearing that I almost blurted out, “How can you live happily live in eastern Europe once dominated and nearly destroyed by the ideologies of Hitler and Stalin?” 

For humans, having to deal with misfortune or hardship, both natural and political, goes way back.  It even goes back further than today’s Bible text from the first book of Kings, set in the northern Kingdom of Israel in the 9th century B.C.   It’s strange that we would even be looking this far back in biblical history; but we wouldn’t be, were it not that the ministry of Jesus, which was greatly rooted in the Hebrew prophets. 

When Elijah abruptly appeared and began his prophetic ministry, as happens in today’s text, it’s as if he came out of nowhere.   We have already been told about the big, bad King Omri, who ‘did what was evil…more evil than all who were before him’ (16:25).  We also have been told that his Son Ahab is much of the same, but has gone even further in wickedness, erecting an altar to the foreign deity named Ba’al, in Israel’s capital city Samaria(16:30).   The spiritual situation in Israel was going downhill fast, when unannounced and unknown,  Elijah comes on the scene annoucing a natural disaster, a drought, was to come upon Israel during Ahab’s rule.  Don’t you just hate it when a whole nation faces ruin and rot because of the irresponsibility of a few bad apples?    It did happen and, unfortunately for us, it still does.

GOING HUNGRY WITHOUT HOPE
When bad things happen, either when they have a cause, or sometimes even when they don’t, people suffer unnecessarily.    People suffer when Hurricanes or Tornadoes hit, just like they suffer when bad political leaders are in office.   People also suffer when they themselves do very stupid things.   But most unfortunately, as in our text today, those who end up suffering the most are not those at the top of the social or economic ladder, but those at the bottom.    It is right here at the bottom, where ‘word of the Lord’ told the prophet to go next, after he left the King’s palace.   Elijah, “Go now to Zarephath…and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you” (17:9).

At first, it doesn’t seem fair that God sends his prophet to live off the offerings off the poor and needy,  like this widow.   Elijah entered a town and encountered this poor widow picking up sticks and began to make demands on this person who already had a very demanding life: “Bring me a little water, so that I may drink”.   And while you’re at it, Elijah adds, “bring me a morsel of bread” with your other hand.   “Men!”, she must be thinking!   It does sound harsh and cruel, but just hang on, this was just the beginning of the story.

The widow speaks up, blessing the Lord with her lips, politely apologizing  to the preacher, saying she has ‘nothing baked’ and only ‘a handful of meal in a jar, and little oil in a jug’ (17:12).  You can underline the words ‘handful’ and ‘little’ to clearly see her situation, visualizing again just how cruel all this seems.  Why is Elijah doing this?  Why has the Lord sent him to make such demands on this poor woman?   This very selfless widow must make the preacher understand just how impossible his demands are.   She adds that she would be willing to oblige him, but her situation is so dire, she needs a last meal for her and her son.   That’s how grim the situation is.  Why can’t this preacher understand?

Perhaps you’ve never been in a situation like hers.   I hope you haven’t been this hungry, or down to your last morsel.   Most people in their working years here in the U.S. have never known a time of so little.   Yes, we’ve all known some kind of heart break, or have been close to it, but few of us have been in situations where we are hanging on to our last penny or last bite.  But situations like this still happen in our world.   On the news recently were pictures of starving children and adults in Syria.  These people were starving not because there was no food, but because the government was preventing them from obtaining food because they were families of the rebels who were fighting in opposition to their rulers.  

We know that situations still exists like this, and perhaps always will, where innocent and sometimes not so innocent people suffer due to war,  conflict, or poor decisions of government leaders.  The world can be cruel place.  People can be cruel to each other.  Sometimes people end up suffering hunger and hurt from natural disasters too.   Other times it’s no one’s fault at all.   We really don’t know who this widow was or whose side she had been on.   What choice did she have in a monarchy that had no democracy?   What we do know from this story is that she was a widow, she was poor, and she, along with her child, were  suffering from a drought, which the Bible says ‘the Lord’ had implemented.

I told you about once corresponding via email with Dr. Bart Ehrman, a professor of New Testament at Chapel Hill, who has lost his faith.  He still teaches the New Testament as a historical scholar, but he no longer believes.  His wife is also a professor, but she still holds on to her faith and goes to church.  Ehrman says he can no longer agree with his wife or any other believer because he can't imagine how a loving God, who is all powerful, could be loving if he still allows the pain and suffering of the innocent observed in the world.  In an article he wrote:
“We live in a world in which a child dies every five seconds of starvation. Every five seconds. Every minute there are twenty-five people who die because they do not have clean water to drink. Every hour 700 people die of malaria. Where is God in all this? We live in a world in which earthquakes in the Himalayas kill 50,000 people and leave 3 million without shelter in the face of oncoming winter.  We live in a world where a hurricane destroys New Orleans. Where a tsunami kills 300,000 people in one fell swoop.  Where millions of children are born with horrible birth defects.  And where is God? To say that he eventually will make right all that is wrong seems to me, now, to be pure wishful thinking...”  (From www.beliefnet.com/)

There is no greater threat to faith in God than the suffering widows and their children just like there is no greater threat to a civilization than motherless or fatherless children.  We all know this to be true.   It was true in biblical times, and it’s still true today.   Because there is always great pain, hurt, hunger and suffering in the world, now, and at any given time, God’s goodness remains in question.   You can always find as many reasons not to believe in God, as you can find to believe.  If all you have is a clever argument to convince yourself or to invite others to have faith and believe, then faith realty doesn’t have a prayer.

LEARNING TRUST
So how does one proceed to have faith, when there seems to be so much to be thought or said against it; when logic is not on the side of faith or when history also speaks against it because churches have been instruments of war instead of instruments of peace?  Though most of us have not had more negatives than positives in our lives, we could envision that our own faith could be at risk because there are no guarantees.  Blessed Assurance does not mean Blessed Insurance.  Even Scripture suggests no one is absolutely safe because  ‘the devil is like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” or as Scripture states, Hell is still enlarging ( Isa. 5:14-15).   Most people in this world do not have the truth we confess.  So, the question comes to us, in our problems and pains, just as it once came to this widow in her struggle and suffering, how will we keep trusting in this Lord who, through the preacher, and sometimes without him too, can seem to be against us rather than for us?
As one theologian once said, there may be enough evidence to believe a power behind all that is, but there is not always enough evidence to know it is good.  Can we know that?

The challenge became even more focused in this widow when the  prophet started making even more demands.  Why didn’t Elijah just go and find another family to feed  and care for him?  Why did he insist on raiding her cupboard?  If you ‘ve already started to think that something else is going on here, your right.  This is really not ‘just’ about paying or feeding the preacher, but it's about teaching this woman and all Israel the importance of trusting God even when it's hard to do so.
Part of the reason King Omri, King Ahab, as leaders of Israel, have left the Lord for other, lesser gods is because is can be hard to believe and trust God   For whatever reason, sometimes when times are easy and others times when times are hard, people start drifting away and before you know it,  God has been replaced with a shiny new god who promises to give  whatever you want whenever you want it.  Isn't this what Ba’al represents?  He’s the God  of convenience, of opportunity, and of getting it now.   As the God of guaranteed fertility, he  offered Israel bumper crops, and a new ox in every stall and worshipping Ba'al could be full of surprises and very entertaining too.   There was always the promise of a full house  at the very popular church of Ba'al.  Did you know they had pole dancing in church?  How could the church of Yahweh compete?  Of course, faith in the true God never stands a chance, unless, there something the prophet knows that others don't.  And of course, there is.

Before we get to that, in his book, Tokens of Trust, the archbishop of Canterbury wrote to encourage Christians, and other spiritual seekers to find and keep faith in the God of Israel who has been fully revealed through Jesus Christ.  Even in a secular world, where God has much less sparkle and shine than other spiritual or secular options and opinions Rowan Williams affirms that we still need to believe in and trust God.  He labels the Christian Faith ‘tokens of trust’ because in order to have life, real life, we will all have to learn to trust in something or someone.   Williams reminds us that the word for ‘belief’ in the New Testament does mean ‘believe in’ (like believing in the Loch Ness Monster), as much as, it means to trust or have confidence in this God we have already experienced through trusting Jesus Christ.  God is proven trustworthy, he suggests, through the test of love—‘love was (and is) God’s meaning in everything’.   And still, when you look straight into the heart of Jesus in his compassion, you see exactly what the world still needs most---a faith that teaches and commands us to trust love.  Only love will get us through the lean days of life, and only love has an answer for our human bent toward sin that leads to death (See Rowan Williams in Tokens of Trust, WJK, 2007, pp. 3-20).

When this widow trusted the prophet to ‘go and do’ (17:9) what love demanded of her in that moment, something amazing took place---she and her family, seemed to always have enough.  She may not have had everything she wanted, nor did she have more, but when she responded in faithful trust, obeying the word of God’s prophet, the text says ‘The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah’ (1 Ki. 17:16 NRS).   But this did not happen, until the woman ‘went and did as Elijah said’ (17:15).   This means she also had to take some ‘responsibility’ in the matter of actively trusting, even when her cupboard was still empty.

Of course, you won’t trust when your cupboard or life is empty, unless you see or know some way or someone who has proven to be trustworthy.   Putting trust in God can mean responding in trust even when all seems lost.   Another woman who serves as an modern example was Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish girl in her twenties, who acted in trust during the nightmares of the Nazi occupation of Holland.   Interestingly, before this time, she was not a pious person with great religious commitment.  But when things became difficult, instead of becoming skeptical of faith, she became more and more conscious of God’s hand on her life.  Imprisoned in the transit camp at Westbrook, before being shipped off to Auschwitz, where she would die in the gas chambers, in her diary dated November 1943, at the age of 29 she wrote, “there must be someone to live through it all and bear witness to the fact that God lived, even in these times.  And why should I not be that witness?”  Even in that dark moment, she went on to explain how her life became an ‘uninterrupted dialogue with God’ and her vocation even in the camp was to ‘simply proclaim’ and ‘commend God to the hearts of others’ because it was necessary ‘to clear the path’ to God’  in them (As quoted in Tokens of Trust, p. 22).

FINDING LIFE
Trusting God is not easy, but it always remains possible to us, no matter what happens, because God is a living, personal, and present God.   He is a God who comes close to us, even in a world bent on death and destruction.   While this story of a widow and her child, trusting to ‘go and do’ even ‘against the world’, similar to that Helen Reedy song, “It’s You and Me Against the World’ this is exactly the kind of trust and faith, the Lord is calling her to respond with, through this prophet, which lies at the heart of this very strange story.
But now again, move to us:  Why should we also need to trust God like this widow?  Why should we ‘go and do’ the demands of faith and life, even in difficult times?   The answer came to this widow when the worst thing imaginable happened.  Her only son became deathly ill and then he dies.   How will she go on?  How will she survive in a world without social security or welfare?   With her son dead, she is also as good as dead. 

Elijah knows how serious this is, because we see the drama in his own desperation ("O LORD my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?" (1 Ki. 17:20 NRS).   When he pounces on his chest, as if giving him CPR there times,  and cries out for God to ‘let the life of this child come into him again’ (17:21), we are told that “The LORD listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived” (17:22).   While Ba’al may promise to bring rain and fertility to crops and people, raising up the dead, is something only the true God can do.  You certainly don't hear people crying to Ba'al to raise the dead.   The god of distraction has no lasting attraction when you face death.   When it comes to dealing with death, the gods of this world have their hands tied behind their backs, their tongues are tied, and their allure is lost.  Ba’al power proves sterile when it comes giving any kind of lasting, living hope of life.
As the Old Testament scholar, Walter Bruggemann has written,  Elijah and this widow, living in the midst of drought and scarcity, learn a valuable lesson: “life comes to those who eat thin, and pray hard.  Life is a gift only given by God(Collected Sermons, WJK, 2011, p. 249).

Recently, the History Channel presented the findings of a well-respected researcher, a professor of Jewish studies in London.   Searching for what happened to the lost Ark of the Covenant, featured in the Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, after going through all the theories of what could have become of it, Dr. Tudor Parfitt, concluded in 2008, that the Ark was taken away by a group of priests, who fled the first destruction of the temple by the Babylonians in 687 BC. 

The professor’s theory rests on the traditions of an African tribe, the Lemba.   Parfitt has been studying this African tribe, because they had an oral tradition which said they were descendants of a lost tribe of Israel.  Their tradition was not believed until recently, when DNA tests were taken in 1999, pointing out that they did have genetic markers common among Jewish men of families named Cohen, a name which means priests.   Along with their DNA, the Lemba also had oral traditions concerning a ‘drum-like’ box called the ‘ngoma’ once used to store objects of worship, carried by priest on poles.  They even believed that it once emitted a ‘fire’ that protected them from enemies which came from the temple in Jerusalem.  This tradition of being ‘priests’ who once protected the Ark finds support in other oral traditions which suggests that the Ark was moved to the Arab desert before the Babylonians arrived, and that the Lemba were the priests who moved from the Arabian desert to Yemen, and then to Africa, as a lost tribe of cohen or priests.    Of course, the Ark, made of wood, had long rotten away, but the Lemba continued to make replicas shaped for their own use and tribal needs (http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2008/05/The-Lost-Ark-of-the-Covenant-Still-Lost.aspx#Article). .

What moved me most about this documentary was not that he found the lost ark, or a replica from it,  but what moved me was this lost tribe, most of whom are Christians today,  continued to witness to who they were, even when no one believed them.   Even when the scholars of the world had doubts about who they were, they kept on going and doing,   practicing and living out their faith, no matter what experts said.  When the proof finally came back to them, they sang, they danced, they celebrated and then they went back to to being who they were and trusting, just like they always had, except that now, they were followers of the flow and promise of eternal life,  from the life-giver, Jesus Christ.


So, when death threatens, or when life gets hard, and there is little you can measure as prosperity or wealth, just ‘go and do’.   Because God is the source of life and all we have had or will ever hope to have, no matter what happens, just keep going and keep doing, what needs or should be done.  We don't have to be over-burdened about running out, nor do we have to allow death or fear to gain the upper hand.  The God of Israel may not promise us the moon, or always the sunshine, or even the ‘showers of blessings’ whenever or wherever we want them, but through Jesus Christ, the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, is the only living God, who is the God of the living, promising to restore and raise the dead to life, as Jesus was raised from the dead.  We don’t have to worry about ‘our life’ because God is our life.  And when God is our life, we know we can  trust enough each day, in both small and big ways, to go and do what only faith gives us strength to go and do. Amen.