Ezekiel: Valley of Dry Bones

sermon on Ezekiel 37:1-14
We hear from 2nd Isaiah next week with the Sunday School program, but this is the last preaching on the Narrative Lectionary’s sweep through the Old Testament. Then we’ll be in the Gospel of John from Christmas until Easter, with the life of Jesus.

From the trajectory of this autumn, we remember back to origins, stories of progenitors, sources of family connection, in Abraham and Sarah and Isaac, Jacob and Esau. That family took us ahead several hundred years to the population explosion outnumbering the Egyptians, with stories of Exodus on the way to the Promised Land, and settling to increase their institutions of government and religion. That brought us to prophets who called for reform and justice, and (at least in their suppositions) being conquered as punishment for misbehavior.

We’ve been in exile for three weeks now, and Isaiah next week will see a path toward home and restoration. Though I recount those details as human narrative, with people as the main characters, this is actually God’s story, the account of God’s ongoing goodness, God striving in God’s world.

So once again, with that sweep of history, with today’s reading still more than 500 years before Jesus, we repeat in the story’s plot: these people weren’t waiting those 500 years for the Messiah to show up, twiddling their thumbs until Christmas finally came. There are words of hope, but not with sights set on a Messiah a half millennium later.

Rather, it was simply a longing for home. Indeed, as Isaiah makes rare use of the Hebrew word for “Anointed One,” the term is applied to a foreign leader. That’s good to keep in mind as we’re wrapping up our time with the Old Testament. Isaiah called Cyrus a Messiah—the king of Persia, the next in the line of empires, this time to knock out the Babylonians and allow the Hebrew people to go home (45:1). That was its own moment of salvation.

With that one example, I really, really hope throughout this fall you’ve been hearing God’s striving for the sake of the world, and investment in all circumstances of our existence. It gets it terribly wrong to claim an old god was angry or could care less, so we were waiting for the nice and loving Jesus to bring a divine alternative. There aren’t two different gods. The God embodied by Jesus is thoroughly and absolutely the God encountering us in the faithful probing of these Old Testament accounts.

Yet, just as this God shows up in hidden and surprising ways—like as a baby and on the cross—God tends to work without blatant and apparent showmanship. The promise seems inevitably paired with doubt, the expectancy amid darkness, God’s blessing where we have all but given up hope succumbing to despair.

So as Ezekiel set his eyes toward God’s vision and the hopes of home, he saw only a dead end. A very honest dead ending. A valley of bones. An abandoned cemetery. The entire family tribe, lifeless and piled in a heap. Ezekiel had begun to figure there was no way out of exile, no return to the life they had known, no possibility for the future.

With that, besides the overall trajectory of the Old Testament story, I also notice a smaller trajectory—the arc of your life—in three of four weeks of these readings.

The first was Isaiah declaring hope in the gift of birth: “unto us a child is born.” Whether Hezekiah or baby Jesus or the young ones around us, or yourself in youth, there was a promise of God’s possibilities and blessing simply in that fragile existence, in the imperfection of not knowing what lay ahead, in small capabilities, yet with God’s care and potential with the birth of a baby.

The following week, Jeremiah moved to the middle of life. Even in captivity under a hostile government, when life was far from what people wanted, still the word of the Lord for the exiles was to build houses, to make their gardens grow, to celebrate marriages. You know, the regular sort of stuff that has kept you busy most of the time since you were born. The stuff you’ll go back to doing this afternoon, and maybe more seriously when the alarm clock goes off tomorrow morning. It’s the stuff of sustaining relationships and tending your spot amid creation, which often involves vacuuming it (as we’re stuck with typically un-thrilling aspects of the not-so-showy God). And it means not pretending you can escape to some utopia, but striving in the place where you are, simply since it’s not perfect.

So we had the start of life, the rest of life, and with Ezekiel come to life’s end, or to be precise, beyond the end.

That God’s concern for and potential in a baby would be a surprise may take a little extra pause for us to appreciate, to remember infant mortality rates and the insignificance on a scale where 255 babies are born onto this planet every minute. But in such small ways, God’s work persists.

And continuing for unspectacular daily lives, God sees potential. That doesn’t mean you could really make something of your life, that you could go on to win a Nobel prize or be a volunteer of the year for some organization or have your picture in the news as a hero. Rather, God is invested in your daily life as it already is, at home and at work and in your family and at the grocery store. God isn’t waiting for something to change, but trusts the potential with you right now.

Okay. So it’s fine that God sees what’s possible in the birth of a baby. It may even be realistic that God would find potential in the course of your life, even up to your dying breath.

But once you’re dead, could God really be seeing any potential then? Isn’t it too late? Relationships over? Isn’t death the point where all that’s left is to go through their clothes and look for loose change, as they said in The Princess Bride? Or for science and the conservation of matter, how your elements are recycled, not just as worm food, as Luther liked to point out, but returning to the soil and becoming crops that go on to feed the hungry? Is that all? Could God possibly plan more of you than that?

That hard language may well be considered morbid. Most of our discussion of death doesn’t really look at it, but euphemizes and ignores, and we say we lost someone or they passed and try to whitewash over how terribly terminal and critically fracturing death has been. There is nothing more to say or do about it. It is ultimate. Sad. Final.

Except not for our God. God will be stopped by no dead ends. Hope will not be overcome, ever. Death is not final. These dry bones will live. They have potential and a future. And so will you.

In Ezekiel, this is brought about by a sermon (or actually three sermons, if you like). Ezekiel preaches to those bones, offering them God’s word. Well, God has a word for you, too. Though none of you today are in the exact physical circumstance of Ezekiel’s sermon—none of you are dead, dry bones—you may either factually or figuratively find yourselves at any of these points in life—young, fresh with potential. Amid the flow and mid-stages and regular rhythms. At terminations where things look worse than bleak and all seems lost. Throughout, the sermon is that God is relentlessly filling you with life for God’s purposes.

In what to me is an utterly astonishing faithful declaration, this is an assurance that with every breath, God is renewing and refilling you, recreating goodness in you. It’s been a few weeks since we’ve done any Hebrew, so here’s another good one for you: ruach. It means wind and breath and Spirit. And with this from Ezekiel, as you are filled with each breath, it is God’s Spirit filling you. In respiration you are inspired; you are re-Spirited as the Spirit is put into you over and over. And even when you expire, even when you breathe out and breathe your last, still God will call for breath to fill and renew you yet again.

I started out saying that the prophets weren’t predicting Jesus. But we should still most definitely see their vision of God directly embodied in Jesus. With life to dry bones and the Holy Spirit that will take victory from death, probably our clearest understanding is in Jesus and the empty tomb, that the forces of enemies and powers of death were defeated, not only once, but for all. Even amid the season of Advent, even as we aren’t ourselves today facing death and the grave, even as we may be closer to birth, still this is always an Easter faith, always with its soul in the hope of resurrection, from birth, through life, and beyond death. We don’t need to and we shouldn’t pretend like we can’t talk about that as we’re getting ready for Christmas. That is the overall shape of our story, the fullness. Though it remains so totally unclear and prone to doubt and without visions of grandeur, with our God who shuns glitzy showmanship, still we know the ending. The end, finally, is life.

And though it risks confining that message and not allowing you to live into the full expanse, I want to tag on a word about Israel and Palestine for these days. Ezekiel’s people were captive under empire. Mary and Joseph were captive under empire. Again this week, we were reminded of the violent claims to power by an occupying empire. Even as our siblings at Christmas Lutheran in Bethlehem are preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus, they are left more and more with a reality of the valley of dry bones, as people confined by razor-wired walls and the dead end of life. As our President worsened the obstacles on the path to peace this week by shortsighted and single-minded declarations on Jerusalem, this reminds us that the word out from death, a word of hope and the breath of life still needs to stir in us all, of a God who understands our weakness, who comes to inspire and to break down barricades, who will not be confined. Our God remains against all that would kill or remove life. The point of our story is not just to look back to one who was coming, but to see that the God of Jesus still comes into our midst and our troubled world now, with every breath, for the sake of life.

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Daniel: The Fiery Furnace

sermon on Daniel 3:1-30
The name Hananiah means “Yahweh (or the LORD) is gracious. Mishael is  “Who is like God?” And “The LORD keeps him” is the translation of Azariah.

And you’re wondering why in the world I’m mentioning these three names of Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. Who has heard of them? Okay, who has heard of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? Well, then you’ve heard of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah! They’re the same guys! Just with different names.

But it highlights an important detail for us. These men with names that directly named their faith, their connection to God, this identity was taken away from them in exile, under Babylonian captivity. After they were dragged away from Jerusalem, they lost their names and were forced into new roles for foreign king Nebuchadnezzar—though judging from his moniker, we have to admit the Babylonians names aren’t too shabby but even kinda fun. The prophet Daniel himself gets called Beltshazzar. Maybe I’ll start referring to Dan McGown as Beltshazzar McGown.

Although, for Dan and for Daniel and for these three other men, what might be gained in a fun name is a loss of identity and connection. Names ending in –el or –iah (think Nathanael or Daniel, Jeremiah, Isaiah) meant connection to the Hebrew God. But the Beltshazzar swapped that as a prayer to a Babylonian god, as “Bel help the king.” Similarly, Abednego is “servant of the god Nebo.” These name changes were changes of allegiance.

That gives a sense of what’s riding on this story of the fiery furnace. Besides that dangerous conflict of colliding cultures, I want us also to hear some subtlety. I’m not sure this story is best received as the risk of martyrdom and a faithfulness in the face of death. Sure, there are people undergoing persecutions in large and small ways all over our world today. There were the people killed in the mosque in Egypt after Thanksgiving because they belonged to the wrong sect. In smaller but vital ways, there’s also the difficulty of being Muslim in the United States, of the ostracizing and worse. But I’m not sure it’s most helpful to hold this story as if it’s about a God who will offer salvation and deliverance from enemies and death if you believe strongly enough and confess your faith heartily enough.

Instead, for a more helpful sense of the dilemma these guys were facing, I want to point away from the ordeal of the fiery furnace for a second to what is perhaps an even more terrifying situation of what exile meant. It’s not just being stuffed into blazing heat cranked up to seven times its normal searing intensity. No, maybe even worse for some perspectives, these poor guys, these sad captives in Babylon, the tragic fate of these people was that they were forced to be… VEGETARIANS! Oh, the horror! Hadn’t they already suffered enough! Appalling, right Debra? Because the Babylonian meat would break their dietary restrictions and cause them to violate the religious standards and understanding of how they maintained relationship with God, they refused to eat the normal rations and tried to survive without meat, if you believe that could even be possible.

And if you thought it was miraculous that the three young men weren’t incinerated in the fiery furnace, you’ll be incredulous at the earlier note that they stayed as healthy as everybody else, even without eating meat. It’s shocking! It’s amazing! It’s ludicrous!

Now, I want to pause for a second for you to understand I’m not being totally flippant. I’m not poking fun at the story. It’s not that I’m failing to take this seriously.

Rather, this story itself is meant to be taken lightly, to be some comic relief. There’s importance in that term—that humor can relieve some suffering and some worry. That’s what this story intends, for the people back in Bible times and for us now.

See, this isn’t only a story about how strong your faith is and whether God will do something about it when you’re put into the rotisserie oven. This is meant to reinforce your faith when things aren’t particularly going how you’d wish, and to lighten your mood, and to lighten the load a bit.

We heard the reading in the King James Version to highlight some of that, to give it its original sense of theatre. Those long, detailed, repeated lists that go on and on and are repeated over and over are meant to sound silly! There’s a pompousness to it that’s supposed to portray a farce.

For our ears, that’s accentuated when we hear that the marching band assembled to toot the horn of the king not only has cornet and flute, but also a sackbut. If you thought Nebuchadnezzar was fun to say, then you were just waiting for the sackbut! We hear an edge of the ridiculous regal procession of princes and captains, the treasurers and the counsellors. But we may catch some extra sense when the King James Version mentions that amid that ignorant throng were governors, judges, and sheriffs, and we may begin to sense this not as an old one-time story, but as a drama, a comedy of errors that plays out in our life, too. Through the hilarity, a king who started out so authoritarian and arrogant was manipulated by his jealous staff, went into blind rage, full of fury, but wound up praising in exclusive terms the very God he was trying to dismiss.

Now, while admitting truth can be stranger than fiction, I would say that generally if we’re looking for a repetition of these events or characters in our lives, then we may have too narrowly confined the meaning of the story. Whether our aim is with a hopeful chuckle about clueless leaders coming around to our side, or is with the serious dread and regret of Jewish lives not saved from the ovens, this isn’t really a story of that kind of direct application. If we’re waiting for somebody to set up a 90-foot tall golden idol or effigy or whatever and demand we bow down to it, then this is left as a laughable little fairy tale, without impact on our lives.

But if we understand it as hyperbole, as overstatement, as dramatized for effect, then we can see connections all over. If this story is simply about the challenge of where our faith collides with culture and what is dominant, then that turns up the metaphorical heat. Where do we symbolically bow down in the wrong direction, offering our lives to what usurps the place of God? How should we be living while in this strange country?

Would we be prompted to confront our leaders? Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego didn’t need to start this confrontation; they probably could’ve figured their actions and decisions wouldn’t make much of a difference. So should we see this story as a parable about what to do in the face of an ignorant, careless government?

But let’s take it down another notch. Forget about being tossed in a furnace. If we determined that it was what we needed to do to live faithfully, would we eat only vegetables? Would we risk our jobs or our social standing at school? Would we sacrifice our place on a sports team, or our income that we prefer to use to give ourselves a little bit of luxury? Would we give up some core part of our identity? This gets awfully serious and awfully implicating and awfully quick. It means we need some humor in our stories!

But if you’re not feeling scorched quite yet, here’s a blisteringly timely seasonal paragraph some of you may have read in Christian Century, about Christmas as

glittery rituals [it says] that have no biblical basis or meaning and become a kind of alternative religion competing with Christ. How many children can pay attention to the meaning of incarnation when they are encouraged to focus on gingerbread houses, candy canes, ornamented Christmas trees, and Christmas lights? Santa is no Saint Nicholas. He’s a Coca-Cola advertisement symbolizing the complete secularization of Christmas, replacing Jesus’ poverty, vulnerability, and self-sacrifice with magic reindeer, a pile of toys, and “Ho, ho, ho!”*

I don’t know about you, but that one burns a bit. I like Christmas and our decorations and the lights in the darkness and the mood of it all and am obviously endeared to St. Nick. I certainly don’t want to imagine that in any of that I’m venerating an allegorical 90-foot Coca-Cola statue.

But raising those small, hard questions in a humorous, outsized way is only one aspect of this story of the fiery furnace. There’s this personal interrogation of what I would do if I were in their place, and—even more difficultly—what I do in my own place.

But the other aspect of this story is God’s place. And that is—it should go without saying—the more vital aspect, much more than what you do or don’t do. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego recognize it. They didn’t see this as putting either their faith or putting God to the test. One of the most interesting lines of the whole story is their statement that it doesn’t matter if God saves them from the fire or not.

I find that to be astonishing and terribly important. It’s not that if you believe strongly enough then you’ll deserve miracles. The three men didn’t earn escape for displaying extraordinary devotion and faith. It wouldn’t disprove God if they didn’t emerge from the fire. More than your identity or circumstances, this is about God’s identity.

For that, three godly wrap-up points:

  1. No matter how high and mighty somebody thinks they are or how much they want to claim for themselves, they can never displace God. That’s why Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego wouldn’t bow down, but also why it didn’t matter what happened to them.
  2. Still, I think we can tentatively say that God’s preference, God’s design, the will of God, would not be for people to be chucked into a furnace, not to be made to suffer.
  3. And finally, the presence of the fourth divine Son of God in the furnace, that we can take as gospel. Jesus is with you, even when you are oppressed and suffering and in danger, even when things aren’t going right. In the words that (at least sort of) ended the prayers at Jean Oliversen’s sister’s memorial service yesterday, nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus: neither death nor life, nor things present, nor things to come, nor Nebuchadnezzar nor sackbuts, nor loss of identity, nor fiery furnaces, nor barbequed pork, nor a chimney with Santa Claus. And that’s no joke.

* https://www.christiancentury.org/article/first-person/why-my-church-stopped-decking-halls

 

The comic relief, according to the King James Version:
Nebuchadnezzar the king made an image of gold, whose height was threescore cubits, and the breadth thereof six cubits: he set it up in the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon. Then Nebuchadnezzar the king sent to gather together the princes, the governors, and the captains, the judges, the treasurers, the counsellors, the sheriffs, and all the rulers of the provinces, to come to the dedication of the image which Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up. Therefore the princes, the governors, and captains, the judges, the treasurers, the counsellors, the sheriffs, and all the rulers of the provinces, were gathered together unto the dedication of the image that Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up; and they stood before the image that Nebuchadnezzar had set up. Then a herald cried aloud, “To you it is commanded, O people, nations, and languages, That at what time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of music, ye fall down and worship the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the king hath set up: And whoso falleth not down and worshippeth shall the same hour be cast into the midst of a burning fiery furnace.” Therefore at that time, when all the people heard the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and all kinds of music, all the people, the nations, and the languages, fell down and worshipped the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up.

At that time certain Chaldeans came near, and accused the Jews. They spake and said to the king Nebuchadnezzar, “O king, live for ever. Thou, O king, hast made a decree, that every person that shall hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and dulcimer, and all kinds of music, shall fall down and worship the golden image: And whoso falleth not down and worshippeth, that one should be cast into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. There are certain Jews whom thou hast set over the affairs of the province of Babylon, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; these men, O king, have not regarded thee: they serve not thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”

Then Nebuchadnezzar in his rage and fury commanded to bring Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Therefore they brought these men before the king. Nebuchadnezzar spake and said unto them, “Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, do not ye serve my gods, nor worship the golden image which I have set up? Now if ye be ready that at what time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and dulcimer, and all kinds of music, ye fall down and worship the image which I have made; well: but if ye worship not, ye shall be cast the same hour into the midst of a burning fiery furnace; and who is that God that shall deliver you out of my hands?”

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and God will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”

Then was Nebuchadnezzar full of fury, and the form of his visage was changed against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego: therefore he spake, and commanded that they should heat the furnace seven times more than it was wont to be heated. And he commanded the most mighty soldiers that were in his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and to cast them into the burning fiery furnace. Then these men were bound in their coats, their hosen, and their hats, and their other garments, and were cast into the midst of the burning fiery furnace. Therefore because the king’s commandment was urgent, and the furnace exceeding hot, the flame of the fire slew those soldiers that took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell down bound into the midst of the burning fiery furnace.

Then Nebuchadnezzar the king was astonished, and rose up in haste, and spake, and said unto his counsellors, “Did not we cast three men bound into the midst of the fire?” They answered and said unto the king, “True, O king.” He answered and said, “Lo, I see four people loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.” Then Nebuchadnezzar came near to the mouth of the burning fiery furnace, and spake, and said, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, ye servants of the most high God, come forth, and come hither.” Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, came forth of the midst of the fire. And the princes, governors, and captains, and the king’s counsellors, being gathered together, saw these men, upon whose bodies the fire had no power, nor was an hair of their head singed, neither were their coats changed, nor the smell of fire had passed on them. Therefore Nebuchadnezzar spake, and said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who hath sent an angel, and delivered these servants who trusted in God, and disobeyed my command, and yielded their bodies, that they might not serve nor worship any god, except their own God. Therefore I make a decree, That every people, nation, and language, which speak any thing amiss against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, shall be cut in pieces, and their houses shall be made a dunghill: because there is no other God that can deliver after this sort.”

(Daniel 3:1-30, King James Version)

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving janfor the Life
of Janice Gail Kittleson Kelly

February 23, 1932
+
September 30, 2017

Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 23;
from Hebrews 13; Luke 14:16-23

 

I need to begin this sermon by asking the obvious question: am I the only one who’d prefer to be eating banana bread right now?

I know I’m not alone in this and assume many of you got to experience and enjoy plenty of banana bread from Jan. She not only had creativity in what went into them—my fondness was for pumpkin pecan. Or maybe it was for cranberry orange. Well, it’s tough to say for sure—but besides the varieties, there’s the quantity. She was sure prolific! I marvel that she took the time for all that baking day after day, and the time for shopping that went along with it, and especially the time for deliveries to family and friends and the fire station and those loaves that even found their way toward me.

Something of that kindness and generosity is what I’m centrally holding onto for today.

Much more that could be said about Jan’s life. Maybe most significant are her years at the Forest Products Lab. Or maybe we’d focus on the relationships she developed out of that work, including friendships that abide still long after retirement. That JBJ group (for “Jan’s Birthday Junket”) formed with a bang to celebrate Jan’s 50th with an outing to Dolores Gust’s cottage, plus stops for refreshments along the way and ever since.

But it wasn’t all fun and games and happy hour. Far from it, because Jan also got a group committed to helping at WilMar center in serving monthly meals to hungry people in a way that’s continued on for more than three decades and been recognized in many ways all over the city and beyond.

And that’s just one notable way Jan’s care and sense of charity and sharing of wellbeing extended to those around her. There were cancer walks and Art Fair on the Square and baby blankets and blood donations and on and on in ways she raised money and volunteered. And pfeffernusse cookie dough for St. James Catholic Church, plus so much else she shared and offered to family and friends and casual acquaintances and strangers.

And, of course, the banana bread. Loaves and loaves, filling and enriching many lives, as well as (of course) many bellies. I mention that bread and hold it centrally in these days for three reasons.

The first reason is to mark that generosity. I don’t do that just to compliment Jan or celebrate her good works. I believe it is important to highlight that characteristic because it is godly, because she was Christlike, acting in a way that revealed God’s goodness in our lives.

Some of that is highlighted in the language of our second Bible reading, that this mutual love of our neighbors, the hospitality and kindness even to strangers, is to entertain angels unawares. And sharing what we have and doing good is a sacrifice pleasing to God.

I don’t really expect that Jan did all of this so she could please God, nor even that she felt like it was much of a sacrifice. I expect it flowed from her almost naturally. And that’s a little more in character and in line with how the Gospel reading portrayed the God whom we know embodied in Jesus. With abundant goodness, overflowing generosity, unconditional love. In the story from Jesus, this God is so eager to share blessing and celebration that offering goodness doesn’t need to be coerced. Rather, it is receiving the goodness that is compelled in rounding up people for the banquet.

Jan, too, could have more goodness and generosity to share than we even had been prepared to receive. I continued to learn from that, not only to benefit with another loaf of tasty banana bread, but by understanding something deeper and richer about Jesus and about our God through Jan. As she gave banana bread to me, she hardly even knew me to begin with and had no reason to like me and I offered nothing in return. In that, she was embodying for me the love and care of God who continues giving and blessing and sustaining and loving, even when I don’t deserve it and give nothing in return. It’s a true sense of being cherished, as Jan would regularly say, “I love you. I like you, too.”

Having valued that faithful reminder then points to a second reason I mention Jan’s generosity and banana bread: it’s a sign of missing her. Jean, her twin sister and best friend, the one who may be missing her most of all in these days, said there had been some question about having banana bread at lunch today. But she said she hadn’t saved any of Jan’s loaves and any other wouldn’t be quite the same thing.

There’s something as we go without, as we miss those deliveries and the joyful gift of a treat, as we lack that sacramental reminder of the character of Jesus, all reminding us we miss Jan. We shouldn’t fail to recognize that in these days. Sometimes in small ways and sometimes enormous life-altering fractures and gaps, we are not the same as we were. Things are different without Jan. Death is wrong that way. It is not as it should be. We lament and grieve, we are sad and hurt, and we also hope.

And that leads to the third reason I’m holding onto the idea of Jan and banana bread these days, because it indicates something more. It isn’t just her own generosity that reminded us of God’s love. It’s not only what she gave while she was with us. It’s also much more broadly that she, too, receives.

The point of the parable from Jesus wasn’t just as a sign of feeding hungry people or an instruction that it’s good to share. It was a word about looking ahead, about God’s abundance that pulls you in from being lost and left out, that won’t forget about you and won’t let the celebration go on without you. This is the God who prepares a table before you, even surrounded by your enemies, to dwell in the house of the Lord forever. This is the banquet promised in Isaiah, when we’ll be gathered together for a feast of rich foods, of well-aged wine, maybe of some JBJ cocktails, with unending goodness, of reunions with all those we miss and have said goodbye to and buried, with Jan, and—just maybe—with some banana bread.

 

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Jeremiah’s Letter to Exiles

a sermon on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14

“My home is in heaven. I’m just traveling through this world.”

Billy Graham is among those to say things like that. It may not surprise you that I dislike this notion, locating faith as bound for far away, not here amid this world, amid creation. As an escape from our reality, not as God’s presence and engagement with us. I believe this world is our home. You’re not destined for someplace else. God created you and put you here, and our faith has its heart and essential vibrancy in that God is traveling through this world with you. Not only is this your home: the home of God is among mortals.

Yet that leaves some explaining to do. Not just for disagreeing with Billy Graham. Much more because this world is obviously so far from perfect and heavenly. We yearn for something much different, something better. That is what this heavenly notion points to—that suffering and worry is temporary, that those who are against you won’t be around forever, that the diseases infecting you and strains pulling at you and sadness drowning you will pass, won’t win, and besides coming to an end, must be replaced by wellbeing and peace and joy. Even if it’s having to wait until this life is over, still, if heaven were your home, then wrongs would by definition be a fluke, with bigger and better intentions for you.

I can’t just rule that out. The tension is that we do hope. We don’t simply resolve ourselves to say this is the best of all possible worlds, as bad as it is. We don’t put up with what’s not right as if pretending there’s nothing better. Our faith needs to say that God does not intend pointless suffering, that God is neither incompetent nor uncaring.* There must be some repair, some refreshing, some restoration and renewal. Whether elsewhere and later or here and now, we want something to hope for, to hope in.

Last week we heard hope with children, in a statement “unto us a child is born,” the possibility of the future, the very existence of a child’s life as a sacrament of God’s good intentions for life, with hope beyond the power of the fiercest empire, the ongoing turning of history, the sense of fresh beginnings.

Yet from Isaiah’s word then at the birth of Hezekiah, from his hopefulness that military might would not remain the determining factor against the people, from his declaration that even if you feared the darkness a light would dawn, as Isaiah’s vision was looking past the terrors of the Assyrian Empire, they ended up staring a short while later directly at another threat. Isaiah may have been right that the Assyrians wouldn’t conquer the southern kingdom of Judah. But the Babylonians did.

That meant the king and queen mother and family, the officials, the elders, the leaders, the priests, those with prestige or power, as well as pretty much anybody with talent or skills or crafting capabilities was deported, exiled to Babylon. They left behind the dregs of society, the poor and least talented, which included Jeremiah as sort of a remnant prophet, seen as not up to par with the others. And they left behind vast destruction. Much of the capital city of Jerusalem got obliterated.

That eventually included the temple, which bears a few extra words. A month ago, we heard about King Solomon building that temple, viewed as the dwelling place of God. Inside the Holy of Holies, seated on the ark of the covenant, was God’s place. That was where to go to get close to God.

Which raised the confounding question for Jeremiah’s people in exile: what happened to God? It wasn’t only a question of where to worship; they had to ask whom to worship. They were far from God’s place, but it may have even been that God was defeated, was gone. So what to make of life then?

Some counseled brief patience, that things would be brighter before long. These so-called false prophets—because they offered false hopes—said that the exiles would be home within two years. It’s a variation on being a stranger here traveling through this world, that you just need to put up with it, grit your teeth, grin and bear it for a little while, because it would soon pass. I read a phrase this week referring to their work as “merchandising nostalgia.”* Whether looking to the past or offering an impossible future, there is this business of trying to convince people of what will be, or could be, or anything other than present reality.

In the church, this it its own cottage industry, harkening back to the good ol’ days, when Sunday School classrooms were full and Wednesday night was church night and theologians had an important voice in shaping society and Christian values helped inform the norms of culture.

Those days aren’t coming back. One parent said this week that her child may be the only one in his class who goes to church. Lives are so fully programmed with activities that Sunday morning serves as another slot for more, or else the only pause during a hectic week. You know well you’re apologizing too often for allegedly “Christian” morality that’s perverse and shameful, like among those who remain vocally supportive of a senate candidate with predatory sexual tendencies. No, none of that points to a very immediate return to glory days of the church in America.

If such fears aren’t exactly where we’d set our sights at Advent and MCC anyway, if we’re pleased with Sunday School and using our voice for positive influence in culture and figuring out how to be Christians at this time and to live well, still we know the struggle.

On this day observed as Christ the King Sunday, we remember that this isn’t triumphal success or getting swept up in the endtimes, but is Jesus who loved to death, who told us to see him in the poor and hungry and imprisoned and ill and outcast, who revealed God for us not through visions of the future but within our own lives. We say he’ll come again. But we need him for now.

That’s also what Jeremiah’s talking about. He won’t claim everything will be alright, or same as it ever was, or all glittery and happy. Neither will Jeremiah suggest remorse that puts up with misery for the meantime. In this letter we heard today, he lets these people know they won’t be coming home anytime soon. It will be several generations before the exile is over. Throughout their lifetime, then, God’s word is to go ahead—to plant gardens, to have weddings and celebrations, even to strive for the good among their captors, to seek the good of the city where they didn’t choose to live.

It’s notable within this that Jeremiah doesn’t direct them how they ought to practice religion without the temple, when life won’t allow for weekly worship. Neither is there the standard biblical injunction not to get tied up risking intermarriage with foreigners. Indeed, before the people leave from Babylon they’ll have assimilated enough to take on Babylonian names and adopt some of the language as their own. They’ll have had to deal with the rest of life, like other foods and jobs and changed social standing.

With this, I read plenty this week on society receiving strangers, on what it means to be a refugee or immigrant, how they adapt to new cultures and maintain old identities. Those are important cultural conversations.

But I’m most invested in what God’s word means for your lives, especially those places you’d prefer not to find yourselves, for what’s not going perfectly, for what seems too often boring or frustrating or, indeed, hopeless. I hear dissatisfaction with jobs and worry at how family gatherings play out and the feeling of wasting valuable time that has been given to you, wondering what else may be and where faith fits into it.

I’m not immune from those things, whether with family friction ill-resolved by me or with spending my vacation day working on this sermon with diversions putzing with laundry and ridiculously mowing my lawn after Thanksgiving while distractedly and desperately pondering selfish wishes and seriously speculating on what would be more important, how I could really make a difference, what exactly life is supposed to be.

In that way, there’s a verse in our reading that gets an awful lot of attention. Verse 11 said, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not to harm, to give you a future with hope.” This verse suffers the inspirational merchandising of posters, graduation cards, mugs, blogs, and more. I take that to mean people like to focus on what those future plans of God might be, trying to figure out what is in store, to get geared up for it. It could easily lead to the sense that heaven is your home and this world is only an inconvenient temporary holding area. Or, maybe less supernaturally, that God has big intents and purposes to prosper your life, so you probably should be doing something else, more important and exciting, or even just dreaming about it.

Those reading the Reinhold Niebuhr book might have come across the quote that Christians shouldn’t presume to know too much about the temperature of hell or the furniture arrangements of heaven. It’s the sense that we can’t predict much of any of what is yet to come.

Jeremiah 29:11 says you don’t need to predict it. Your future is entirely secure with God. There is no reason in the world to doubt God’s unfailing goodness and unconditional love for you. God will give peace more than you can possibly understand. You are secure in God’s blessing and promised life. Even if you waste your time or miss the point or blow it completely. Even if you try your hardest and nearly succeed. If you meet everybody’s goals or fail at every last expectation. If you feel comfortably at home or like everything is foreign and you’re far from where you’d prefer to be, still God’s assurance remains with you.

Since you don’t need to be elsewhere or elsewhen, the remaining question is, what do you do for now? One good set of answers: don’t just pass through. Instead, care for the city. Celebrate life. Build your house and cultivate your garden.

* http://www.enterthebible.org/oldtestament.aspx?rid=44

* Peterson Run with the Horses p150 (cited by Andy Twiton)Peterson, Run with the Horses, Pg. 150 Peterson, Run with the Horses, Pg. 150 Peterson, Run with the Horses, Pg. 150

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Isaiah: A Child is Born

sermon on Isaiah 9:1-7

 

“Unto us a child is born.” If I asked you who this is talking about, you would say…? The occasion of remembering this event, then,  is the holiday of…? That sounded like a resoundingly unanimous “Jesus” and “Christmas!”

It’s almost like that standard church joke that the answer to every question must be Jesus. I’d say I’m really into Jesus and can hardly stop talking about the guy, but this does create an interesting conundrum. In this section of Isaiah, there are three spots that reference a little child: in chapter 7, here in chapter 9, and again in chapter 11.

Chapter 7 is used about Jesus. That’s where we pick up the term Immanuel, which means “God-with-us,” and which we reiterate in our creed today. I believe that’s exactly what Jesus came to embody, the sense that God is with us from birth to death, to know your joys and laughter and feasting celebrations, and is with you in sickness and weeping and when you’re left out and suffering injustice. All that about Jesus is quickly summarized by that term Immanuel.

So that Isaiah passage on Immanuel is referenced in Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew really likes citations of Old Testament passages. He especially gives us the sense that old writings are fulfilled in Jesus, though again and again we reiterate that these weren’t only waiting for Jesus to be true. He may be a special embodiment of these writings, but we’ll also notice the validity they have apart from him.

At any rate, Matthew picks up Isaiah 7:14 and says, “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.’” Now, we’re not going to delve today into discussions of how “virgin” might be a mistranslation of what simply was “young woman,” and what that means about Mary and about the birth of Jesus.

Instead, we’ll move on to Isaiah 11, the third of the passages referring to a child. This one isn’t directly connected to Jesus anyplace in our Bibles, even though it’s nice imagery. It includes what’s typically called the Peaceable Kingdom: the wolf shall live with the lamb, the cow and the bear shall graze, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and a little child shall lead them. I may be predisposed to like that one, since all the carnivores convert to become vegetarian, but it is also so beautiful as harmony among creation, that this vision of what God intends isn’t only about humans being nice to each other, much less something that happens up on a heavenly cloud, but involves all God’s creatures.

With one child passage, then, used for Jesus and one not, that brings us back to our own reading. This one is also directly applied by the Gospel of Matthew to Jesus, though probably not in the way you’d expect. It isn’t related to his birth. It has nothing to do with Jesus as the child who is born or naming him as the prince of peace.

The verse of our reading that is picked up actually just locates the start of Jesus’ ministry around the lake of Galilee, an explanation from Matthew for why something important would happen in a Podunk place, and it’s even phrased as if Jesus would go there just because he knew the Bible verse from Isaiah. Plus, it’s not so much that the verse is fulfilled from Jesus as that it is fulfilled for the people who happened to live around him, that they are the people who have sat in darkness and the region and shadow of death. They have been hurting and oppressed and left out, and the message is that God was mindful in saving them.

We’ll return to the importance of that, but let’s also pause with the sense of that “unto us a child is born” as a Christmas message in our minds and hearts and as a shape of our faith. That’s not a bad thing, by any means. It can be right and proper to perceive Jesus here. But it wasn’t what Isaiah intended. He wasn’t picturing Jesus, much less shepherds and oxen and a manger. Not that those don’t fit. That’s entirely correlated with the same God, and Jesus was an ideal (or the ideal?) embodiment of Isaiah’s words.

But Isaiah meant a different baby. It may have been Hezekiah, a future king and son of Ahaz. Maybe Isaiah was envisioning that Hezekiah would eventually be a good ruler and would bring different leadership to the nation. But it may just have been Isaiah was trying to turn faith away from military and human decisions and deficiencies and back to God, back to hope.

The war imagery in this reading is first about that. See, the Assyrian Empire were the baddest dudes around and the most ruthless conquerors of antiquity (Heschel, The Prophets p207). The newborn’s father, King Ahaz, was trying to strategize allegiances to avoid brutal defeat. But instead of the force of armed alliances, Isaiah says hope is in God. That is what will end the reign of terror, what will mean the burdensome yoke of submission and oppressive rod of intimidation will be broken, the stomping boots and bloody clothes destroyed and forgotten.

The shape of this hope is portrayed in the little phrase “as on the day of Midian,” referring to a story from the book of Judges (ch6-7). Midian had troops too many to count plundering the crops and impoverishing the people. The prophetic reminder then was that God is a God of liberation, from Exodus to that day and onward. Just as for Isaiah, that message restricts hope to the work of God, as thousands from the Israelite army were sent home and a small crew of 300 soldiers was all that remained, but they scared off the Midianites simply with trumpets and torches.

Isaiah ups the ante by not even having 300 soldiers left, but merely a baby. How will the Assyrian Empire, the most fearsome army ever, be overcome? Well, unto us a child is born! As the foremost author on the prophets, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, tells us:

A gulf was separating prophet and king in their thinking and understanding. What seemed to be a terror to Ahaz was a trifle in Isaiah’s eyes. The king, seeking to come to terms with the greatest power in the world, was ready to abandon religious principles in order to court the emperor’s favor. The prophet who saw history as the stage for God’s work, where kingdoms and empires rise for a time and vanish, perceived a design beyond the mists and shadows of the moment. (p83)

We, of course, proclaim something similar in the birth of Jesus. Just as those titles in Isaiah—wonderful counselor, mighty God, prince of peace—were titles stolen away from foreign rulers, so also when an angel announced “to you is born this day a savior,” it was stealing the title from Caesar Augustus in Rome, who called himself lord and savior and bringer of peace. But no longer could the domineering commander of the largest empire be the one seen to control the fate of the world. Our wellbeing, our hope comes from God alone.

That returns us to today. We’ve said the words of the prophets were first for their own time, secondly applied to Jesus, and, third, continue to be alive for us. We, too, are the people who have walked in darkness and dwelt in the shadow of death. We know tramping warriors and roaring F-16s and nuclear threats. We know the rod of oppressors’ yokes that are debts holding us captive. We know garments that are threadbare with hunger and torn from crawling through barbed wire seeking refuge and bloodied from lack of healthcare, and life is never right with much too much sadness. If you don’t know those things, if you’re not seeing them around you, if you identify with the empire, then you’re ignoring the reality of your siblings, and Isaiah won’t stand for that, either. Our lives, our hurting world, the marginalized and imprisoned and outcast, all nations, the vastness of creation needs release from the terrible oppressive might that would seem to be undefeatable.

We need the hope of God who comes not to destroy the destroyer and cause larger fear, but comes persistently, everlastingly, for peace and joy and love. A God who will be made known and change the world even in the finite fragility of a birth.

Yes, of course, we proclaim that in Jesus. We proclaim that the heart of God, the soul of God, the very identity and image of God’s presence in our world was found in a manger, far from fortress might, homeless and surrounded by stink. That hope proved a different path for peace on earth, and even the threatening injustice that tried to execute and bury that hope could not prevail. Death lost its sting.

But we don’t only look back to Jesus. We continue to see that presence of Jesus and the with-us God now. This passage resonates not only for baby prince Hezekiah or newborn Jesus in a barn. With every birth, Isaiah’s message again and again is true. With the miracle of new life, with precious and tender beauty, within your own families, a child born is the hope that prevails beyond any catastrophe of violence. As the cliché reminds us, having a baby changes everything, including your worldview and sense of the future.

And that sacrament of God’s blessing for us in the vision of youth is with us this morning, as we are reminded the very children here in our midst are a sign of hope, surprising us by continuing to proclaim simply in their existence that death and violence are not what is important or definitive or ultimate, because our light and our exultation, liberation and unstoppable life itself come from God. That’s not just a Christmas message. That’s good news we need any day. So thank you, children, for proclaiming it for us today. Amen

 

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Amos: Justice Rolls Down

sermon on Amos 1:1-2, 5:14-15, 21-24
Can I suggest this image of justice and flowing waters must apply to the economic policies of President Reagan, even though it may first ring in your ears associated with Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement?

Such observations occur for these six weeks of the Narrative Lectionary, that the words of prophets, the word of the Lord continues to speak, to have varied voice. That’s true, though we isolate some of these passages as applying only to one instance—whether the Civil Rights era for today or amid Handel’s Messiah and Christmas Eve services with next week’s reading from Isaiah. We take the impression that the words have a solitary application.

But that misses several layers of their importance. First, we must remain aware that the prophets weren’t just offering future forecasts, making predictions about a Messiah, as if their message had to wait for hundreds of years to make any sense at all, and now we only look back to verify that their prognostications about Jesus were correct.

The prophets were speaking a message from God, of God’s will and purpose, of God’s command and God’s blessing, primarily to the people of their own time, even if the significance became more timeless. Just as it wouldn’t make sense for me to give a sermon that wasn’t for you but was a time capsule communication for 500 years from now, the words of the prophets were meant and had meaning for their own time and place and people.

So Amos was speaking to his culture’s prosperity, but also injustice. His nation was expanding and profiting, but the benefits weren’t equally shared. People were taking bribes and spurning the courts, selling shoddy merchandise at rip-off prices. They built fancy houses with good landscaping. They lounged on beds of ivory, got dolled up in finery, and went all out enjoying feasts to gulp down bowls of wine with entertainment, but weren’t in the least grieved over distress around them. Amos observed these “fat cows” (as he called them) had too much ease, too much luxury, while others went hungry and poor.

And Amos declared God was against that.

That may seem second-nature to us, but Amos is an entirely new voice within biblical history. It hadn’t addressed God’s concern about economic injustice. Amos speaking of God’s displeasure and opposition for having too much at the neighbor’s expense, and that detrimentally affecting relationships with God—that was a new insistence.

Although Amos was addressing inequality in his own time, these words aren’t isolated to that period. We apply them in other ways, as well. So a central aspect and second layer of importance is in how we understand Jesus as the embodiment of God’s presence partly because he embodies the words of the prophets. From the emphasis of Amos, we recognize Jesus as living out God’s justice, striving for a religion that connects to the wellbeing of the poor, not simply paying lip service to relationships with God and with society. Jesus portrays that living rightly for the marginalized is inherent and vital in relating to God. In our Gospel window today, Jesus says he himself is the living, flowing water to quench the thirst of those who long for justice. Amos had no way of knowing about Jesus, but if he had lived three quarters of a millennium later, Amos would’ve seen Jesus personifying his message.

So the words of Amos were first spoken to his own time. But they are not left as ancient and dead words from 2700 years ago. We also find their fulfillment in Jesus. And the third layer of importance is in other situations and settings where these words keep resonating, as a living message, empowered by the Spirit of God.

So Martin Luther King could take this message, could tweak the wording, and could speak the voice of a long gone biblical sheep owner and dresser of sycamore trees, then to confront racism. This “mighty stream” Martin Luther King proclaimed became one of his favorite images, including in his “I Have a Dream” speech, where in part he said:

We can never be satisfied as long as African Americans are the victims of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We cannot be satisfied as long as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity. We cannot be satisfied as long as some cannot vote and others believe they have nothing for which to vote. No, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

There it is, Amos again talking through the most famous speech of the 20th Century, not with the old historical moment of ignorant luxury, but a new moment of voting rights and segregation and white supremacy, yet maintaining Amos’s impatience and dissatisfaction at how domineering injustices linger.

Moving to our time, and because Amos was part of shaping this awareness of and resistance to injustice, I want to share a few sentences of a modern instance about elites, echoing the old injustice, in a new book by Naomi Klein. She writes:

What matters is that not one of them appears to be worried about climate change. The early catastrophic events are playing out mostly in poor parts of the world, where the people are not white. And when disasters do strike…, there are growing numbers of ways for the wealthy to buy their relative safety…They will lose some beachfront property, sure, but nothing that can’t be replaced with a new mansion in the mountains…Almost every one of them is catastrophically unconcerned…In an age of ever-widening income inequality, a significant cohort of our elites are walling themselves off not just physically but also psychologically, mentally detaching themselves from the collective fate of the rest of humanity.*

That condemnation strikes me as a fairly exact parallel of Amos’s critique of those who lie on beds of ivory and neglect the poor at the edge of town. And that’s not only a rebuke from Naomi Klein and Amos, but from God. God is against this elitism that would wall ourselves off from the problems others are having at our expense. That is evil, says the Lord.

Now, all of that might make us question effect. Was God’s message received in Amos’s time? Was it effective in changing the attitudes or behavior of the rich people in oblivious leisure? We don’t know. Martin Luther King’s message still needs to be repeated for our white ears. Naomi Klein may not be speaking directly to the situation of us in this room as climate denying elites, but it’s a message that resonates in our lives anyway and at the very least needs to be spoken.

Finally, however, I’m also aware that in a few minutes we will be offering our pledges of how we use our time and our skills and our financial resources. Almost certainly, Amos’s message of economic justice is relevant and should affect our consideration for those decisions and dedications.

That realization that this matters for what we do brings me back around to President Reagan. For weeks now, I’ve been thinking about Amos’s vision of justice as ever-flowing waters, and Martin Luther King’s take on it as a mighty stream, which seems to contrast starkly with the term “trickle-down economics.” President Reagan claimed the top having more would drip down to everyone else. While things have gotten significantly better for those few, by some measures it has actually worsened for many and by all measures income equality is more disparate. The pool for the rich is growing, while the trickle to other 90% of us is drying up.**

Now, obviously that has much broader policy implications. It goes with the conversations about reforming the tax code. And the voice of Amos—indeed, the voice of God—should be part of that discussion, and it may be for us to offer that prophetic voice.

Instead of the slow trickle of justice, God calls us to open the floodgates, to un-dam the river, to gush with goodness. And though the implications can be much broader, still as we gather for worship, we have the chance to practice. We can practice speaking and hearing the truth. We practice envisioning new realities. We live into the justice God calls us to. And our pledges and offerings are a vital part of that. It is the practice of not holding back the floodgates, not keeping dammed up what we either consider our own or have failed to notice we retain at the expense of others who need more. Our worship is an opening for the outpouring of justice.

I confess I don’t suggest this devotional practice lightly, knowing that the largest chunk of what you give here goes to fund me. So I will say, thank you. And with that realization, know that I am swimming eagerly in these waters with you, responding to the invitation to let it flow abundantly and give freely, again increasing by an additional 6% what flows from my hands—or, better, through my hands—for God’s work. Thank you for hearing this prophetic message anew and letting it work on you today, because that is how God comes to quench your thirst also.

 

 

 

* No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, p180

** http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2015/jan/13/elizabeth-warren/warren-average-family-bottom-90-percent-made-more-/

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All Saints Sunday / God Speaks to Elijah

sermon on 1st Kings 19:1-18
It’s hard to feel alone and have to carry on.

That is my first feeling on this All Saints Sunday, not to give thanks, not of celebration or praise, not of hope or blessing. I first feel the hardness, the lament at being left alone, the clear preference for it not to be this way.

Those people who have left me behind, those from our congregation who died, especially Eileen, John, and Lynne, those other funerals, the deaths we’re remembering today, parents and grandparents, siblings and sons, aunts and nephews, old friends, and at least one classmate, and dogs and cats, the broken community, and all the other losses we continue to bear with us—even when it wasn’t totally tragic and we might admit that the end was a relief, that suffering was over, that the wait had been too long, still I’m not ready to call that my preference. Even when the routines were difficult and existence itself uncertain, still mostly I could keep going in those relationships. In no case am I ready to be done being with the person, sharing life with them. I would rather it not be over. Even when it was a good goodbye, I don’t like goodbyes.

While we talk about a hello on the other side of this, about reunion, about being together again, while we confess our hope in life to come, in resurrection, and I cling to that hope, sometimes desperately, sometimes tenuously, mostly enthusiastically…I believe, and I believe it will be so unbelievably good…but still for this moment that later promise doesn’t sweep me into eternal joy, but feels like a shabby consolation prize. Even expecting God’s ultimate love and goodness, when confronting loss and grief and sorrow and death, it can be hard to see. It’s hard to believe when we’re feeling lonely, and hard to carry on. What we’ve known and trusted and loved about life is missing, and our lives are so dependent on relationships that when those are gone, it’s tough to know how to proceed, what to do next, even how to get up and get going in the morning.

In a way, this is what we hear of the prophet Elijah. Not exactly because of the death of loved ones, but still he is feeling alone, abandoned, diminished, with that accompanying uncertainty of how to proceed.

In Elijah’s case, he tries not carrying on. He’s reasonably running away. This is a veteran prophet, seen even by Jesus as the greatest in the Bible, and yet he’s ready to give up. He’s afraid and frustrated and is just trying to get away from it all. But, of course, a change in scenery doesn’t help, since it’s the nagging self-doubt and internal questions that hound after him. He’s so done he even asks to die. “I’m no better than my ancestors,” he says.

That points to earlier weeks in the Narrative Lectionary, of Elijah’s ancestors wandering in that wilderness. They were freed from slavery in Egypt, but didn’t find the readiness to live into their purpose. They still doubted God’s goodness for them. They kept looking back, as if there were no forward.

Like for those ancestors, then, God’s most basic work is in ongoing sustenance. God provided manna to the hungry complaining travelers in the wilderness. God provides a cake or maybe Palestinian taboon flatbread to Elijah to give him strength for the journey. God sustains you, even as you confront your doubts and feeling lost and not knowing where you need to go next or even if you can take the first step. As you gather at this table this morning, you are assured in the smallest bite of bread of God’s presence with you, God’s blessing for you, God’s life within you. And as you go out from this table to all the other morsels and meals, the bites of food and the breaths of fresh air, the places you sleep and the encounters when you awake, in all of that, you have a never-failing reminder of God sustaining you.

And yet that still may not be enough. The wilderness wanderers groused about manna. Elijah didn’t want to go on, so why would he want strength for the journey? It may not offer you any certainty, either.

So Elijah goes to Mount Horeb, where God had commissioned Moses, speaking from a burning bush to reveal God’s identity and purpose for liberation. In parts of the story the lectionary bypassed, it also says this was the mountain where God spoke amid smoke and lightning with thundering sounds, to give Moses the 10 Commandments so the people could live together well. Also on that mountain, Moses asked to see God directly, and God tucked Moses’ face into a cave and passed by, so Moses could turn to see the back side of God.

Well, that’s the cave where Elijah goes. He’s sustained for the journey by the food, but still isn’t sure why or what. He keeps feeling desperate loneliness and lack of direction. Maybe he has circled back to Mount Horeb to seek some assurance of purpose, to rediscover who God is and what that means. Maybe he needs a burning bush. Maybe he would like a clear command. Maybe he wants to see God. Maybe he longs for a Moses moment. And maybe you, too. For clear revelation. For something that makes a difference. To know that God is on the scene and doing something about it.

That is apparently about to happen in the story. At Mount Horeb, Elijah’s in the right spot for a big vision, for God to show up miraculously. Then come what the insurance industry still tries to convince us are “acts of God”—the earthquakes and hurricanes and lightning and raging fire. Certainly God didn’t avoid such phenomena in other places in the Bible. But just as those have at best an ambiguous message for us—more of destructive power than divine power—here, the cataclysmic events don’t reveal God. They don’t help Elijah.

Instead, finally, after the bombast and spectacle, comes nothing. A sound of sheer silence. Or a still small voice, a gentle whisper, calm and subdued, thin and quiet, a soft murmuring sound. These are all translations of this little phrase. This is God’s presence in a non-obvious way, and with it the question: “What’re you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah, still stuck in his fearful uncertainty repeats his feeling of loneliness. “I alone am left.”

God contradicts Elijah. It’s an odd consolation, perhaps. It isn’t dismissive that everything is going to be okay. Neither does it overturn the problem, for miracles to reverse Elijah’s fortunes. It’s a deeper, quieter, more lasting assurance that Elijah isn’t alone, that he can take the next steps, and, beyond that, God’s work will continue.

Admittedly, Elijah is sent to anoint not only his own successor to carry on the work, but with planned nastiness of regime change and brutal international politics against a tyrant ruler. But even amid those large scale words of war, the more important word—the quieter, again less obviously visible, but more lasting assurance—is that Elijah is far from alone; there are 7000 around him also going ahead with God’s goodness.

This communion of saints is why we gather here today, a brief pause, expecting God to whisper the reminder that you are not alone. As isolating and tragic as grief is, as desolating and difficult as confronting death can be, as much as only you know your loss and how that cannot be restored, and the solitary feeling of abandonment inflicted on you, still you are not alone. You are with this gathering of others, these also who are blessed and sustained by God to keep going.

And not just your own losses, but in larger tragedies and ugliness of violence and politics, you can continue striving, knowing that others—far more than the 7000—also carry on with this quiet, deep, sometimes fearful and often unspectacular blessedness.

Then there’s the still bigger picture of generations. As important as your work is, others were before and will come after us. The church of Jesus, this community of God, the work of God’s blessing and against tyrants in the world, this will persist. It does not stand or fall in our lives, in our dedication or lack of passion. God’s work will continue. That is good news, too.

And, finally, though without the obvious ways you’re told God could appear, nevertheless in your moments of sheer silence and deep, lonely, longing, God quietly is present for you in life now and forever. This isn’t a fantasy of miracles, not a dismissive faith that everything is okay because heaven is waiting. This today, amid grief and confronting the hardness, is the whispered presence to sustain you and give you strength for the journey.

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