Pentecost 7 C / Proper 12
July 28, 2019
Throughout the summer, our first readings are from various prophets in the Old Testament, and today we meet Hosea. He doesn’t just speak “a word from the Lord.” He makes his own life into a story about the relationship between God and the people of God. God is like a faithful husband, Hosea’s life proclaims, and the people of God are like an unfaithful wife.
Pentecost 7 C / Proper 12 July 28, 2019
Hosea 1:2—2:1 Pastor Susan Henry
Luke 11:1-13 House of Prayer Lutheran Church
Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Throughout the summer, our first readings are from various prophets in the Old Testament, and today we meet Hosea. He doesn’t just speak “a word from the Lord.” He makes his own life into a story about the relationship between God and the people of God. God is like a faithful husband, Hosea’s life proclaims, and the people of God are like an unfaithful wife. The metaphor is meant to shock, and it does. [In the translation we usually read in worship, it goes like this: “The Lord said to Hosea, ‘Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.’”] Stung by Israel’s betrayal of the covenant God has made with her, God wants Hosea to marry a promiscuous woman and have children with her, giving them names that describe the ever-deteriorating state of Hosea’s marriage. Hosea’s own children become walking indictments of Israel. This piece of performance art is God’s way of saying, “Look at this, you faithless people. Things are not going well in our relationship, are they? What you are doing has consequences, you know.”
God long ago had taken a vow and made a promise: “You will be my people, and I will be your God.” That’s how it’s meant to be. But it turns out that God who is faithful has made this covenant with a people who get seduced by other gods, over and over, again and again. They won’t rely on their God, but instead they go their own way and do their own thing. They worship God, the giver of all good gifts, but they hedge their bets by also worshipping the local storm god who’s supposedly responsible for bringing the rain that makes for a good harvest. They pay lip service to God’s power to save and protect them, but then they cozy up to potential enemies of their nation and make unwise deals and imprudent alliances. You know, just in case. By their faithlessness, they betray the intimate relationship God desires with them. God’s covenant – and God’s heart, it seems – is broken, and God’s hopes for their future together have been dashed.
What the relationship has given birth to reveals the sorrow, suffering, and anger that Israel’s passionate, loving God experiences. The first child born to Hosea and Gomer is named after a place remembered for the violence and killing done there. You might as well name a child Auschwitz or My Lai. Hosea names his second child No Mercy – as in, this is what your behavior has led to. And the third is brutally called Not My People. You are no longer my people; now you are Nobody. It’s devastating, really.
But then, despite how It seems like the relationship has been broken beyond repair, a word of hope is spoken by God. In truth, God will not abandon God’s people even as they endure the consequences of their faithlessness. In time, God will call the children by new names that bear witness to the ongoing covenant. God will call them Shown Mercy and My People. They will be Somebody and not Nobody in the eyes of God. They will be called Shown Compassion and be named Children of the Living God.
Although it seems like I could say “Amen” to this story of law and gospel, sin and grace, and be done with this text from Hosea, it’s not that simple. As all of scripture does, it reflects its own time and culture and social order, and that doesn’t necessarily travel well across 2700 years. The Bible tells the story of an unfolding relationship between God and humankind, one that begins and deepens and grows over the centuries, a relationship where the character of God becomes clearer and is revealed through God’s actions for the sake of those who are coming to know and love God.
God reveals Godself in creation, but humankind resists trusting the author of life itself. God reveals Godself in the liberation of those enslaved in Egypt, setting the people free and then giving them the great gift of the ten commandments – showing them what God intends for life together in community to look like. They don’t live that out very well. God continues to reveal who God is through prophets like Hosea who testify in strange ways to the relationship God desires with God’s covenant people. These prophets also bear witness to the people’s stubborn resistance to trusting the very God who creates, saves, loves, and seeks to be loved by them. Hosea’s metaphor for that loving relationship is marriage.
At its best, marriage can express the kind of intimacy and faithfulness God desires with humankind, but our understanding of marriage is very different from that of Hosea’s time, and the metaphor of marriage in the prophet’s life and preaching is problematic for readers of Hosea today. To be sure, its strength is in its depiction of a compassionate God who loves even a sinful people, and heaven knows, we ourselves need to take to heart such a message of love!
However, that metaphor carries some danger, especially for women. Living in the patriarchal culture of Hosea’s time meant men wielded a great deal of power over women. The marriage of a daughter was negotiated by her father to strengthen social connections or create an alliance among families or with a larger group. Romance had nothing to do with decisions about marriage. A wife left her family home and moved into the home of her father-in-law, and her place in that household was really only secure once she had given birth to a son who would carry on the family line. Husbands may have had more than one wife, so a wife’s status in the family was always somewhat precarious, so, really, the more sons, the better for her – as long as there was no question about her husband being their father. Anything that put a husband’s paternity in question dishonored him and his family and could lead to a wife’s humiliation, abuse, or death. We know enough about so-called “honor killings” in some Middle Eastern countries today to recognize how ambivalent patriarchal cultures are about women’s sexuality. In such a social setting, a woman brings honor or she brings shame to a man.
Today, is Hosea’s marriage to a promiscuous woman the best metaphor for God’s love for sinners? Although we hear God’s voice and Hosea’s voice in this story, we never hear the voice of “Gomer daughter of Diblaim.” What’s her story? We have no idea. We know nothing about what led to her being called a promiscuous woman. Women’s lives were not their own, and their circumstances were not always of their own making. If we read further in Hosea, we will be appalled by the language used to speak of Gomer, the woman who stands for Israel, God’s unfaithful wife. She is threatened with humiliation and even violence, though later she will be “allured” back, treated tenderly, and given gifts. In Hosea’s story, her humiliation and public shaming are for the sake of returning her to dependence upon her husband, for the sake of returning Israel to dependence upon her God.
This is not a word of grace or hope or love for women who are victims of domestic violence or for anyone who suffers sexual violence. Any metaphor that can be understood as approving of abuse, even – or especially – if it comes from the Bible, is not a word from God addressed to us. God is not abusive. God is not caught up in controlling our behavior. God does not humiliate, threaten, or do harm to any of us, then apologize for what he did, profess love, and promise never to do it again. Such behavior does not reflect what God is like.
The marriage metaphor in Hosea is problematic in relation to the children, too. What real-life loving father would intentionally traumatize his children by giving them names that would make their lives miserable? Names matter. What others call you matters, for good or for ill. Even if the biblical metaphor then turns the story around – from trauma to healing, from curse to blessing, I struggle with it. I want to tell Hosea to find some other way to make God’s point!
Now, surely God does want us to recognize that all that we are and all that we have comes from a gracious and compassionate God who knows the depth of our sin and grieves its consequences in our lives and on our planet -- and still calls us Beloved. God revealed Godself in time through creation, exodus, the commandments, and the prophets – and we still didn’t get who God is. So God revealed Godself yet more fully in Jesus.
The God we know in Jesus does not do violence but has suffered it himself unjustly. The God we know in Jesus called Israel and calls us to live faithfully in relationship with God and with our human and other-than-human neighbors. The God we know in Jesus welcomes women among his friends and followers and tells his disciples to back off and let the children come to him. The God we know in Jesus sees how the faithlessness of God’s people and of those who hold religious and political power can set into motion destruction like Israel’s fall and exile in Hosea’s time and disasters still in the making in our own time.
As he understood God’s call, Hosea made his marriage and family a metaphor that spoke of a faithful, compassionate God, an unfaithful wife, and children who had to live with the consequences of such a union before their father named them more truly as his beloved children. As problematic as the marriage metaphor in Hosea can be today, it affirms that, beyond the unfaithfulness of God’s people and the disastrous consequences of their sin, God remains faithful to the covenant God has made. As Jesus understood God’s call, all the way to the cross he was faithful to the God of the covenant, the God he knew intimately as a loving parent. In Jesus life and death and rising, beyond our personal and collective unfaithfulness and the disastrous consequences of our sin, we too have been Shown Mercy and we too are beloved Children of the Living God.
Different times, different stories, same God.
Pentecost 5 C Proper 10
July 14, 2019
Judgment and Hope
Imagine that you are just a guy living an ordinary life – breeding cattle or running a sheep farm and tending to the trees in your orchard -- when you feel this nudge. It’s an undeniable shove out of your comfort zone, into a role you certainly haven’t gone looking for, and to well beyond the place you call home.
Pentecost 5 C Proper 10 July 14, 2019
Amos 7:7-17 Pastor Susan Henry
Luke 10:25-37 House of Prayer Lutheran Church
Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Judgment and Hope
Imagine that you are just a guy living an ordinary life – breeding cattle or running a sheep farm and tending to the trees in your orchard -- when you feel this nudge. It’s an undeniable shove out of your comfort zone, into a role you certainly haven’t gone looking for, and to well beyond the place you call home. That surprising nudge is God’s call – and that call is to speak words of judgment to people, to hold the religious and political leaders in the state north of you accountable to God. You’re going to say to them, “Sure, the economy’s booming – but how come a few people have so much while way too many people don’t even have enough to live on? Oh, sure, there’s peace in the land, but things are going to fall apart because your worship is shallow and your way of life is unjust.” God wants you to say, “Listen to this, you who walk all over the weak, you who treat poor people as less than nothing, who say, ‘When’s my next paycheck coming so I can go out and live it up? How long til the weekend when I can go out and have a good time?’ Who give little and take much, and never do an honest day’s work. You exploit the poor, using them – and then, when they’re used up, you discard them.”
Maybe, if you were that guy who felt that nudge from God, you might say, “You know, God, nobody’s going to want to hear all that.” And God might say, “Yeah, well, my people don’t measure up to who they’re meant to be, and, frankly, I’ve had it. Go tell them so.”
Apparently, if you’re that guy and your name is Amos, that’s what you do.
Amos was a prophet, the first one whose words were set down in scripture, and he lived about 750 or so years before Jesus. Prophets like Amos were active during the centuries when kings ruled in Israel and Judah, for good and for ill. A few hundred years before Amos’ time, the kingdom had been united under the reigns of Saul, David, and Solomon, but afterwards it became a divided kingdom – Israel in the north, and Judah – where Amos was from -- in the south. In Amos’ time, neighboring countries like Syria, Egypt, and Assyria were weak or in decline and posed no military threat to Israel or Judah, and that contributed to their growing and prospering economies – for some people, at least -- so some of Amos’ threats would have seemed farfetched then. However, by a generation or so later, Assyria had again become powerful. When it conquered Israel, sent many into exile, and put an end to the northern kingdom forever, no doubt people remembered Amos’ words and heard God’s judgment in them.
Amos was, shall we say, an inconvenient prophet in his time. He was convinced that right worship and right living are intrinsically connected and that worship that doesn’t lead to action on behalf of those who are vulnerable or who suffer injustice isn’t faithful worship and means nothing to God. Amos reminded the people and their leaders about what God had always desired, and he held them accountable to what God commanded for Amos’ time and for our own.
In response to God’s call, Amos leaves his home in Judah and goes north to Israel. He goes to Bethel, one of the high places where worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has intermingled with worship of some local gods and with more than a dash of deference to the current king. It’s the ruler’s own private chapel, in a way, and Amaziah is the priest in charge. It’s his job to maintain the institution and, really, to not rock the king’s boat. Amos is not on board with that. He has “a word from the Lord,” a little object lesson for those who gather there at Bethel.
“Here is what God showed me,” he says. He gives them a visual that reveals how Israel isn’t aligned with what God wants. It’s maybe a plumb line that shows how Israel is out of line with God or maybe it’s something made of tin that reveals the actual weakness rather than the presumed strength in what’s being built. Whatever it is, it witnesses to utter failure in Israel’s religious and political life. It witnesses to God’s unwillingness to continue to overlook what’s going on. Israel, Amos says, is on the road to ruin.
Needless to say, Amaziah is not pleased with what he hears, and he tells Amos to leave the king’s shrine and never come back. “Go back home and earn your keep as a prophet there,” he says. Amos replies that he’s never been part of the guild of prophets in the south and never made being a prophet his profession. He’s just a guy with sheep or cattle he raises and an orchard he tends to, and he only came north because God called him to.
Amaziah may be done with Amos, but Amos is not done with Israel. He has more of “the word of the Lord” to preach – about social injustice and religious arrogance, about depending on human leaders instead of on God, about where corruption and a lack of compassion leads. Amos’ prophetic words spoke to his own time and situation, and they have continued to speak. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted Amos in his letter from Birmingham jail where, as Elaine James notes, he writes to “well-intentioned white pastors who have urged [him] not to act too quickly, not to push his agenda for racial equality with urgency, and not to employ strategies of civil disobedience. King, in response, call for extremism: ‘Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever- flowing stream.”’” King quotes Amos again in his “I have a dream” speech delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” That’s Amos, chapter 5, verse 24.
The message Amos delivered was not one you’d want to hear if you were the king who was feeling self-satisfied with the country’s economy, its military might, and your own power and wealth. It would be hard to listen to if you were the king’s pastor who saw the value of a stable religious institution and who chose not to confront the king about the lack of justice for the poor despite God’s long insistence upon it. Amos’ preaching was hard to hear if you were annoyed by the sabbath because it interfered with your work or your play. You wouldn’t want to hear Amos challenge the ethics of, for no more than the cost of a pair of new sneakers, literally buying people who couldn’t pay even their trifling debts so you could then profit from their labor.
If you were among the people and the leaders, you’d want to believe that being God’s chosen people would make you exempt from God’s judgment. But you would be wrong. There are stories scattered through the scriptures that attest to that. Caring for people who are vulnerable is not an optional activity. Seeing that people do not go hungry is not optional. Worshipping God rather than power, money, or shiny objects is not optional. Loving God and neighbors and strangers and enemies is not optional. When the king, the priests, and the people of Israel treated such things as merely options, things went wrong for the nation. Amos showed up to bear witness to the consequences and to call them God’s judgment on Israel.
When political leaders, pastors, and people of faith today treat such things as merely options, things go wrong for us, too. Amos shows up to bear witness to our failures and to the consequences for our communities, our nation, and the planet itself. I do not for a minute believe that God has given up on us or on our world, but I do believe we are in some ways living under God’s judgment.
We are no less beloved of God, of course, while we find our way in the current wilderness where injustice and exploitation and corruption seem to be flourishing. We respond to our deep-down, known-to-our-very-core belovedness when we live as people of hope. When we gather our courage and pray for wisdom and work for justice. When we protest the treatment of people seeking asylum who are held in internment camps. When we respond with extraordinary generosity toward to the family who was about to be evicted. We live as people of hope and faith when we acknowledge the hold that institutional sin has on us and on political and religious institutions and then we resist being complicit and seek release from that sin. And we live as people of faith and love and hope when we hold Amos’ words of judgment alongside Jesus’ words of compassion, his acts of healing and mercy, his call to love God and neighbor, and his promise that God’s grace is more powerful than our sin.
Despite the almost relentless judgment we hear from the prophet Amos, he ends with this promise from God: “I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel; and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them again; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine; and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant them upon their land, and they shall never again be plucked up out of the land that I have given them, says the Lord your God.”
Such a promise surely sustained God’s people even as they lived under God’s judgment, allowing them to be people of hope, no matter what. So too are we sustained. So too are we people of hope. No matter what.
Pentecost 4 C / Proper 9
July 7, 2019 Upside-Down
One of the crazy-making things about the Bible is that in it, God so often turns things upside down. What you get is seldom what you expected. The biggest, boldest, most inexplicable expression of this is of course the cross.
Pentecost 4 C / Proper 9 July 7, 2019
2 Kings 5:1-14 Pastor Susan Henry
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20 House of Prayer Lutheran Church
Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
One of the crazy-making things about the Bible is that in it, God so often turns things upside down. What you get is seldom what you expected. The biggest, boldest, most inexplicable expression of this is of course the cross. That the cross, an instrument of Roman torture and death, became the central symbol of new life for Christians is, when you really think about it, bizarre and not a little unsettling. Through the cross, God totally turns things upside-down.
In the big story of God’s way with God’s people, God spends a lot of time unsettling people and upending expectations. In our Old Testament story today, God is turning things upside down. Human expectations about the importance of status, power, and wealth are challenged in this story about humility and healing.
Elisha has taken the place of Elijah as prophet in Israel, and Elisha has an important, though a not very visible, role in this story. It’s Naaman, a gentile, who is front and center here. He is “a great man and in high favor” with the king of Aram because of his success as military commander of the king’s army. Everything is not great and favorable in Naaman’s life, however, because he suffers from some sort of skin disease, though probably not what we today would call “leprosy.”
An Israelite girl, who is in truth a prisoner of war, serves Naaman’s wife and tells her that “if only” Naaman were with the prophet in her country, he could be cured. “If only. . . .” Naaman tells the king about this prophet in Israel, and the king of Aram sends Namaan to the king of Israel not only with an official letter but with a ludicrous amount of money and goods -- along with the clear expectation of a cure. When the king of Israel reads the letter, he is beside himself, knowing he has no power to cure Naaman and taking this for some kind of setup, some way to pick a fight.
Elisha gets winds of all this, and he sends the king of Israel a message: “Let Naaman come to me so he can see what it means to have a prophet in Israel.” And so Naaman goes off to the place where Elisha lives. You can imagine all the pomp and circumstance that accompany his arrival at Elisha’s house – horses, chariots, servants, that ridiculous amount of silver, gold, and garments. Maybe there’s even a fireworks fanfare! Can you see Naaman anticipating his dramatic cure? “Here I am, Elisha! I’m ready to be healed!”
Elisha, however, chooses not to play his expected part in Naaman’s drama. He unsettles this great man by not coming out to meet him, but instead sending out his servant with a message. The message is a simple one: Go wash in the Jordan River seven times, and you will be healed. Does Naaman respond with thanks, with deep appreciation, with a grateful heart? No. He feels entitled to something more, something bigger, something befitting his status. He receives Elisha’s message, and he gets angry, so angry that he takes off. He starts to leave without the healing he desires and needs, because his ego, his pride, his arrogance, and his sense of entitlement are shouting louder than his hope and his common sense.
I mean, really, doesn’t this man of God know who he is? He says, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!” Naaman wants what he wants and how he wants it – fanfare, fireworks, drama, a show worthy of Naaman’s position and of the enormous tip he’s willing to leave for the prophet after he’s been served by him. Why should he go wash in the stupid, muddy Jordan when there are, as he sees it, “better rivers” where he comes from? He stomps off “in a rage.” He wants a better story than this one to tell when he gets back home.
What he needs is being freely given, but he can’t get his ego out of the way long enough to receive what will bring healing to his body. What he desires is being freely offered, and he can’t let go of his wounded pride or his anger so that he can be made whole. This is not just Naaman’s story, of course. It’s yours and mine – and other people’s, too. How often has ego, pride, arrogance, or a sense of entitlement gotten in the way of our own healing? How many times have we reacted with hurt or turned our backs when what God desires to give us hasn’t come to us in the way we expected or wanted it to come?
Now, Naaman is a fortunate man. For some reason, his servants seem to really want for him what God desires to give him, and, despite their status as servants, they approach him and say, “If the prophet asked you to do something that was hard, wouldn’t you gladly have done it? So why wouldn’t you do the easy thing he asks -- just ‘Wash, and be clean’?” Naaman was ready to do just about anything, but when he’s asked to do what’s really nothing, it’s hard for him. It seems demeaning and nowhere near respectful enough for someone like him. It’s really hard for him to humble himself and receive what will make him whole and well. It’s often really hard for us to humble ourselves and receive what will make us whole and well, too. Such a dynamic gets lived out in our culture and our country, too. Naaman was afflicted with something that showed on the outside – on his skin – but he was also afflicted with something inside that made itself known in his anger, his hurt, his arrogance, his turning away, his refusal to be made whole, outside and inside.
Now, isn’t it amazing how the God of Israel moved in Naaman’s life through the most unlikely of people? God first came to Naaman through a child who had been taken from her people in a raid on Israel – a nobody of a girl, in his eyes. And God spoke to Naaman through the messenger Elisha sent out to him, the very ordinary person who came out to tell Naaman that he could indeed be cured. And then God spoke to Naaman through his own servants, those who were at the mercy of Naaman’s ego and his arrogance but who still had compassion for him. The wise and humble ones felt for the foolish and arrogant one.
Healing does come to Naaman, but his status, power, and wealth have nothing to do with his being made whole. Some kind of surrender took place within Naaman– something incredibly antithetical to the world’s values and to his military mind – but that surrender opened him to receive God’s healing power. He humbled himself. He went down to that muddy river, and he washed, and he was made clean.
If we kept reading a little further in this story, we would see that he came back and stood before Elisha and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” There is no way to say such a thing except in all humility. Naaman also said to Elisha, “Please accept a present from your servant.” From “your servant”! Clearly, God has healed more than Naaman’s body.
Elisha absolutely refuses any gift, despite Naaman’s urging him to accept. Now, you might think that would be end of it all, but in fact there’s one more upside-down thing. Naaman stops trying to give away all that valuable, glittering stuff he brought along, and instead he asks for something that has become priceless to him. Naaman asks Elisha for some dirt. He asks for “two mule-loads of earth” to take home so that he can worship the God of Israel on a little bit of the ground from the place where he came to have faith in the God who has brought healing to his life. Elisha grants Naaman’s request and says to him, “Go in peace.”
God does strange things in people’s lives, Naaman’s and our own and others’, turning things upside down and shaking out of our pockets our fascination with power, status, and wealth so that there will be room for wisdom, humility, and healing. It can be unsettling to be emptied out and to then, somehow, by the Spirit, surrender ourselves to the one who is eager to give us a great ‘something’ in return for our ‘nothing.’ We may not have gone down into the waters of the muddy Jordan, but we’ve been washed in the waters of baptism and given a share in Christ’s own new life. We don’t have to literally carry around any of that water or any of the earth through which it once flowed because we carry forever a cross marked on our foreheads.
God still sends into the world humble and compassionate ordinary people like the servant girl, Elishah’s messenger, and Naaman’s servants. Like Naaman, we can get caught up in status, power, wealth; ego, arrogance, entitlement; anger, rage, and drama -- and we can resist humility and healing. Who are the humble and compassionate people in our own lives through whom God comes to us? Who gently encourages you and me to go where God is leading? Whose surprising word of grace has challenged you to let down your defenses or whatever stands in the way of your openness to what God desires for you? I hope that sometimes we are those people to one another.
In Elisha’s time and our own, in the world and in our lives, healing is a strange thing. Illness and suffering and tragedy still turn people’s lives upside- down. Sometimes bodies are healed, and sometimes not – but not all healing shows on the outside. When I worked as a hospice chaplain, I saw people made more whole and I saw relationships healed even as death came near for some people. Talk about upside-down and unexpected!
As a pastor, I often witness God’s healing work of all kinds in people’s lives, and no doubt both you and I have stories to tell about how God has brought or is bringing or wants to bring healing to our own or others’ lives or to our congregation, our country, or our world. God is at work graciously in all of that, and perhaps we can serve God’s purposes. Together with the servant girl, Naaman and Elisha and their servants, and all servants of God who speak words of challenge and blessing, let us worship with grateful hearts the God who in Jesus Christ gives us new life, the God who is the source of all healing and wholeness.
Pentecost 2 C
June 23, 2019
We’ve come through half a church year of festival time connected to Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost – and now we begin a season of “ordinary time.” Ordinary time doesn’t mean that what’s ahead is plain old, average, common stuff. Instead, that designation is about the ordinal numbers that mark the first, second, third, and-so-on Sundays after Pentecost.
Pentecost 2 C June 23, 2019
1 Kings 19:1-15a Pastor Susan Henry
Luke 8:26-39 House of Prayer Lutheran Church
Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
We’ve come through half a church year of festival time connected to Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost – and now we begin a season of “ordinary time.” Ordinary time doesn’t mean that what’s ahead is plain old, average, common stuff. Instead, that designation is about the ordinal numbers that mark the first, second, third, and-so-on Sundays after Pentecost. We’re back in Luke’s gospel from now until the end of the church year, and through the summer, we’ll meet some of Israel’s fascinating prophets in our first readings each week. We start with Elijah, a larger-than-life figure in Israel’s history.
Among the many stories scripture tells about this prophet, you might recall the spectacular showdown that took place between Elijah and the prophets of Baal over whose God was more powerful. Ahab, the worst king of Israel ever, had married Jezebel, a Phoenician princess, and they allowed for the worship of the storm god Baal in Israel, which lured people away from worshiping Israel’s God. Elijah, appalled by their unfaithfulness, gathered all the people together and gave them an ultimatum: “If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is, then follow him.”
Nobody said anything. I imagine them avoiding eye contact with Elijah, looking down at their sandals instead and scuffing up the dirt beneath their feet. But then they watched as two altars were built, one for Baal and one for the God of Israel. A bull was sacrificed and placed on the wood on each altar. Whichever god sent fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice would be revealed as the true god.
While the prophets of Baal prayed loudly and fervently all morning to their god with no results, Elijah taunted them: “Hey, where is your god? Meditating, perhaps? Out for a walk? Maybe he’s taking a nap. You should wake him up.” They raved on, “but there was no voice, no answer, no response.” Elijah then called the people closer to him. Having dug a trench around the altar of the Lord, he poured water on the sacrifice and drenched the wood three times to soak it thoroughly and fill the trench with water. Then Elijah prayed, “O Lord . . . let it be known this day that you are God in Israel [and] that I am your servant. . . Answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” Fire fell from heaven, consuming everything – the sacrifice, the wood, even the altar stones, and the water as well. The people fell on their faces, saying, “The Lord indeed is God.”
All 450 of the prophets of Baal were seized and killed, but when Ahab told Jezebel about this, she was enraged and she threatened to kill Elijah. When Elijah – the strong, confident, bold prophet of the Lord – got word of her death threat, he was terrified. He fled. Driven by fear and adrenaline, he traveled south on foot -- about a hundred miles! -- far into the kingdom of Judah and theoretically beyond the reach of Jezebel’s authority.
And then he went one more mile into the wilderness, alone. He’d had it. He was done. “’It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life.’ Just let me lie down and die.” But instead of acquiescing to Elijah’s plea for death, God provides life-giving food and drink – “a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water.” Elijah eats and sleeps and eats some more. What God provides sustains him on the long, hard journey that leads him to Horeb – which is another name for Sinai – the mountain where Moses had met God. And as Moses had once slept in a cave there, so does Elijah.
Then God asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah replies that he has been “zealous for the Lord” in the face of the Israelites’ forsaking God and following Baal, but now Jezebel has killed God’s prophets, he’s the only one left, and she’s out to get him, too. Perhaps his speech is a mix of exhaustion, self-pity, frustration, deep sorrow over the faithlessness of God’s people, and something close to despair over his struggle to get them to trust God rather than what’s not worthy of their trust. God hears him out, and then God responds. God doesn’t give Elijah a pep talk or chide him for how he feels or even challenge his insistence that he alone is left – since there are at least another hundred prophets of the Lord who remain in Israel.
Instead, God simply tells Elijah to leave the cave and to go stand outside “for [I am] about to pass by.” “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it . . . he went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.” God makes God’s presence known to Elijah in stillness not in action. In a whisper not a shout. In “the sound of sheer silence.”
I would expect Elijah to be instantly changed by such an experience, but he is not. When God asks him again, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” he repeats, verbatim, what he said the first time he answered God’s question. How can that be? Is nothing different now for him? Maybe he’ll just have to live into the meaning of what he has experienced.
God’s response to Elijah’s speech the first time had been to reveal Godself in an unexpected way. God’s response this time is to send Elijah back out into the world he has fled from. God’s work – and Elijah’s work – are not done. Elijah is to anoint new rulers, one of whom will wipe out the worship of Baal in Israel. He is also to anoint Elisha as a prophet who will continue the work Elijah has begun. And God assures Elijah that his prophetic calling is not in vain, that a faithful remnant of 7000 people endures in Israel. God has not abandoned God’s people, just as God has not abandoned Elijah. “Go;” God says, “Be on your way.” And Elijah goes. He does what God sends him out to do.
The End. But not quite.
In this story, I keep coming back to something that feels unresolved. Once Elijah arrives at Horeb and spends the night in a cave, God calls him out of that cave because God is going to pass by. But Elijah stays put. Why? Does he know enough about the power of God in wind and earthquake and fire to want to keep his distance? Those are awesome and terrifying traditional ways in which God reveals who God is, and maybe Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal and its aftereffects have made him leery of displays of God’s power. “Go out and stand on the mountainside before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” No thanks, God, because what I’ve already seen and heard took a lot out of me and fired up my enemies and drove me out in fear. Enough is enough, God. Just let me give up and give in to my weariness and frustration and sorrow and to feeling despondent and depressed and alone. Forget the fireworks, God. I’m not coming out.
Elijah didn’t leave the cave until God called him again – after the wind and the earthquake and the fire had not revealed God’s power and presence. After he “heard a sound of sheer silence.” After there was nothing, really -- or nothing Elijah had expected. Because God didn’t pass by in any way he anticipated, maybe he failed to recognize how God had been present to him and with him. Maybe he answered God’s question with exactly the same answer as before because he didn’t perceive that God was in that “sound of sheer silence.” Maybe he mistook that silence for God’s absence.
Heaven knows, that can be easy to do. When we pray and “nothing happens,” how do we respond? Do we say, “Fine, God. I’m running on empty and I’m under attack and I could really use a little of that earthquake, wind, and fire stuff to assure me that you’re around”? Or when the sorry state of the world and the reluctance of faithful people to confront evil wear us down, are we tempted to say, “Enough, God. I’ll just hang out alone in my cave with my fears and frustrations and distress because I don’t see you showing up and making order out of that chaos”?
When God doesn’t show up in the traditional ways we expect, maybe we miss the surprising or simple ways in which God does come to us. God’s still, small voice still speaks. In the sound of sheer silence, God is still present. In the food and drink, the bread and wine, that God provides to nourish us because the journey ahead may be hard, God is with us. In the encouragement that comes through scripture and song and the kindness and company of friends and strangers, God reveals Godself.
God says to Elijah and to us, “When you’re afraid that I’ve abandoned you or you feel isolated and alone or you’re caught up in fear or desperation, I am with you. In whatever cave you’ve retreated to, in whatever struggle you’re caught up in, in the night when your worries keep you awake, I am not absent from you. In the sound of sheer silence, I am present with you. Do not mistake my silence for my absence.”
Really, God continues to call us out of our respective caves, to assure us that we are not alone, and to say, “Now go – we still have work to do.”
June 9, 2019
Mixing and Moving Us
The little introduction to our reading from Genesis this morning suggests that the Pentecost event reverses what happened in the tower of Babel story. What got taken apart gets put back together. The big, brick, building project had revealed humankind’s pride and arrogance, and God punished the people, confusing their language and scattering them across the earth.
Pentecost C June 9, 2019
Genesis 11:1-9 Pastor Susan Henry
Acts 2:1-21 House of Prayer Lutheran Church
John 14:8-17, 25-27 Hingham MA
Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Mixing and Moving Us
The little introduction to our reading from Genesis this morning suggests that the Pentecost event reverses what happened in the tower of Babel story. What got taken apart gets put back together. The big, brick, building project had revealed humankind’s pride and arrogance, and God punished the people, confusing their language and scattering them across the earth. But on Pentecost, what God scattered gets gathered back together when, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the apostles can speak about “God’s deeds of power” and be understood by all, no matter where people come from or what language they speak. It’s kind of a “reversed the curse” story. I’ve preached sermons like that -- but not today.
Some biblical scholars have been thinking differently about the tower of Babel story and about its meaning for us today. They suggest that this story is really about the beginning of cultural diversity, not about human arrogance and pride. They see God’s actions not as punishment but as God’s way of furthering what God has intended from the very beginning – that humans be fruitful and multiply, that they go out and fill the earth, that they be stewards of God’s vast, diverse creation.
The people in Babel, however, had decided to settle down and make a nice, comfortable life with other people who looked like them and talked like them and thought like them. They made some bricks and they built a city and a tower in order to keep their community together. We may not be bricklayers, but we are inclined to do something similar in our neighborhoods, schools, and churches. The South Shore is a pretty white, wealthy enclave, and the truth is that we Lutherans make up the whitest denomination in God’s church. There’s more than a little of Babel in us.
I would guess that neither the folks in Babel -- nor we ourselves -- see hanging out with people like us as inherently a bad thing. And it isn’t. We do need a sense of identity and solidarity, but the tower of Babel story suggests that our desire to only be with people who look and talk and live like us runs counter to God’s plan. God’s desire is for us to experience unity in the midst of diversity, rather than to seek out uniformity for the sake of our own comfort. God is doing us a favor, not punishing us, when God nudges us out of our comfortable sameness and scatters us into less comfortable but richer and more diverse neighborhoods and schools and churches, into the very big world full of neighbors who don’t look and talk and live like us, into the vastness of creation where our neighbors are both human and other-than-human.
We usually call this “the tower of Babel story,” but God doesn’t really pay all that much attention to the bricks and the city and the tower. God seems more interested in mixing things up for the people who live there so that their sense of community doesn’t harden into isolation, protectionism, nationalism, or “othering.” “There’s a big, interesting world out there, people,” God says, “go live in it! Figure out how to relate to people who don’t speak your language. Learn from one another. Eat together, play together, celebrate together. Enjoy the abundance that diversity brings.”
Really, why would we expect God to delight in the diversity of nature – in 20,000 species of bees alone! – but not delight in a diversity of human cultures? The story of Babel says that God “confused” their languages, but it’s equally accurate to say that God “mixed” their languages, and that’s a good fit with understanding this story as the beginning of cultural diversity.
That we live in a world where fear of the “other” is rampant suggests that the tower of Babel story has something to say about human resistance to God’s desire for richly diverse communities in which all people can thrive and appreciate each other’s gifts. Some voices insist on building walls, but God seems way more interested in having us build bridges.
It’s easier to make bricks and build walls than to figure out how to span the distances between people. Even our best intentions don’t always lead to good results. When more white people move into communities of color, there are opportunities to build bridges between cultures, but most often, that doesn’t happen. White people move into predominantly brown or black neighborhoods, and rents for longtime residents often go up. In those more diverse neighborhoods, people who speak the same language tend to interact with one another rather than build relationships with neighbors who speak other languages. A sense of entitlement creeps in when a new white resident wonders how many little Vietnamese shops the neighborhood really needs when there’s no Starbucks or yoga studio that she’s interested in going to. Yikes.
I hope I’m not as clueless or heartless as that woman, but I too am most comfortable in the company of people who look and talk and think like me. I don’t much like admitting that, because I have an intellectual and a theological commitment to diversity of all kinds. Unfortunately, our preference for people “like us,” whatever that means, can seduce us away from loving – or even knowing – our neighbors. This is surely not what God has in mind in a world where, from ancient times, God has been mixing up our language and booting us out of Babel. Apparently we’re not quick studies about how to welcome and receive and be enriched by God’s gift of cultural diversity.
The tower of Babel story really is our story. It’s a sorry little story, isn’t it, that tangles up our God-given need for community with our human temptation to resist the gifts offered to us through all kinds of God-given diversity. Stories throughout scripture remind us of creation’s diverse flora and fauna, of outsiders who surprisingly become part of the people of God, and of insiders’ struggles to go where God leads.
Pentecost, too, bears witness to God’s continuing work of mixing things up and moving people out for the sake of fostering all kinds of life in human and other-than-human community. Pentecost bears witness to the Holy Spirit’s work of building true community that connects us and breaking down walls that separate us. And Pentecost bears witness to the Spirit’s power to give us a glimpse of the fullness of someone’s humanity, even for a moment, and to move us to love that neighbor as we know ourselves to be loved by God.
So, how might we cooperate with God’s mixing things up and moving us out of our cozy cocoons of sameness? We might learn how to protect some of those 20,000 species of bees or some other creatures that make for glorious diversity in the natural world. We could sign up with Babbel – that’s B-a-b-b-e-l – to learn a language other than the one we’re most comfortable speaking. We might read books by authors from all over the globe who will introduce us to diverse cultures. We can ask the Spirit to open our eyes and ears and hearts to the gifts, not just the needs, of the people we serve. Hoping to deepen our connections with one another, we might take more risks and be more vulnerable in conversations with people we disagree with. We can pray, as we do every week, for our President and Congress, that, in a world of diverse cultures, they might lead our country with wisdom, compassion, and humility.
The possibilities seem endless, really. I mean that not only in terms of what we might do, but in what we might discover. The Holy Spirit just might mix things up and move us out of our comfort zone only to hand us gift after gift that reveals the beauty, complexity, mystery, challenge, and joy to be found in the rich and diverse world in which we live.