Elisha Shows Mercy

2 Kings 6:8-23 (6:22) – June 25, 2017

 

 

mercy

“Elisha Shows Mercy”

Compassion. Being kind. Showing mercy. Showing love. All of these are actions God calls us to do.

During the past few weeks in June, these are actions we saw carried out by people in the Old Testament, in the Hebrew Scriptures. We saw Abraham showing hospitality, the midwives for the Hebrew women displaying compassion, and King David being kind and merciful. This week’s scripture lesson is a little different. Here, we take a closer look at the prophet Elisha and see how he displayed mercy and compassion.

We need to step back and remind ourselves about our summer sermon series on Compassion. In keeping with my continuing effort to provide for activities for everyone—adults and children—I chose this series on Compassion because of its excellent, detailed children’s teaching and activities. This series also had some thought-provoking sermon ideas on how God’s people went out of their way to provide compassion, mercy and kindness for those around them.

Compassion is a big word. One thing it means is being especially kind to others. Except, the prophet Elisha and the people of Israel had a difficult time being kind because of what was going on with the political situation of the country of Israel. Is it easy to be compassionate to an opposing army that is marching against you? Even with up-to-date, fancy chariots and horses—which was the equivalent of the best tanks and armored vehicles they had at that time.

We need to see why the king of Syria was so angry at the nation of Israel. But before that, we also need a refresher on the nation of Israel. After King David died and his son King Solomon died, the nation had a short civil war. One of Solomon’s sons took over the northern part of the kingdom, and another of Solomon’s sons became king over Jerusalem and the southern part of the kingdom. A couple of hundred years go by, and here we are at the time of the prophet Elisha. Elisha served as prophet to the northern kingdom, which was called Israel.

The prophet Elisha was powerful, a miracle worker who had the spirit of the Lord resting upon him. This is exactly the reason behind the first part of our reading from the book of 2 Kings. There was conflict between the nation of Israel and the nearby country of Syria. Yes, the armies of both Israel and Syria were actively engaged in outright war.

Our biblical writer says: “The king of Syria consulted his officers and chose a place to set up his camp. But Elisha sent word to the king of Israel, warning him not to go near that place, because the Syrians were waiting in ambush there. 10 So the king of Israel warned the people who lived in that place, and they were on guard. This happened several times.”

The Syrian king must have been puzzled, and scared, and especially angry! The first thing he thought was that he had a traitor and spy on his hands. But, no. All his soldiers were faithful and true. However, to continue with our reading: “The prophet Elisha tells the king of Israel what you say even in the privacy of your own room.” 13 “Find out where he is,” the king ordered, “and I will capture him.”

Not good! The Syrian army wanted to conquer Israel and take the prophet Elisha as prisoner. Under cover of night, the army sneaks up on the city where Elisha is staying. In the morning, what do you think happens? What would you think if you woke up one morning and your town were surrounded by hostile forces?

I do not know what my reaction would be for sure, but I bet I might be able to relate to Elisha’s servant. He was scared half to death, just looking at all of these Syrian troops and chariots and horses! Again, the Syrian army had the latest in military gear, weapons and armaments. It must have been an impressive—and frightening—sight.

“The servant cried out, “What shall we do?!” Elisha reassured him, “Don’t be afraid. More are with us than with them.” Elisha prayed for his attendant’s eyes to be opened, and suddenly the young man saw the surrounding mountains filled with heavenly horses and chariots of fire.”

Elisha reassured his servant not to be afraid, and said “We have more on our side than they have on theirs.”  What is more, Elisha prays that the Lord will send blindness upon all of the Syrian army. And—God does!

What happens next is both humorous and ironic. Elisha himself goes out to the newly-blinded Syrian army. He tells them, “This is not the way you’re trying to go; this is not the city you want to get to; follow me, I’ll bring you to the man you want.

Remember, the Lord has struck all of the Syrian army blind. “Here Elisha told a technical truth but certainly intended to deceive. He did in fact bring them to the man they sought (when their eyes were opened, Elisha was there with them). However, he led them back to Samaria – the capital city of the Kingdom of Israel and an unfriendly place for [an army] of Syrian soldiers.” [1]

Let’s pause for a moment, and imagine we are with the king of Israel and Elisha. How would you have felt if you were them, facing the Syrian army? Remember, this army is at war with our country. Elisha does something unprecedented. After leading the blind army into enemy hands—Jewish hands, Elisha suggests mercy, kindness, and compassion! He tells the king to give the Syrians food and drink. In other words, serve them a feast!

One of the most surprising and beautiful parts of this story is how the Syrian army is blown away by the compassion they are shown. When they expected revenge and fighting, they receive a feast and love instead. Compassion! Kindness!

The Syrians get it. They understand. The king of Syria stops sending raiding troops into Israel because of this act of compassion and mercy. Can you think of a time when you were expecting more fighting, and there was peace and kindness instead? I realize it may not happen often, but sometimes—praise God!—sometimes it does happen.

It is not only by our own power that we act in kind, loving and merciful ways. God helps us to show compassion, even to those who persecute us. Just as Jesus said in our Gospel lesson today, 44 But now I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may become the children of your Father in heaven.” Challenging words, to be sure! We can take the prophet Elisha for our example, as well as our Lord Jesus. Truly.

Showing compassion and kindness to those who hurt us is not the same as being passive, giving up, or letting them do whatever they want to us. When we show compassion or mercy we act in love. How can we find the strength to take these kinds of actions? Through prayer! Through doing the next loving, compassionate thing, with the Lord’s help.

God willing, God can help us act in a loving way.

Let us all follow in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus. We can all show compassion, kindness, mercy and love to those around us; to our friends as well as our enemies.

Amen, alleluia!

[1] https://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/guzik_david/StudyGuide_2Ki/2Ki_6.cfm

(A heartfelt thank you to An Illustrated Compassion: Learning to Love Like God. Many of these sermon ideas and thoughts came directly from this series.  I appreciate this intergenerational curriculum, which is the basis for my summer sermon series on compassion. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry. Thanks so much for such great ideas!)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Transforming Creation

“Transforming Creation”

isa-35-word-cloud

Isaiah 35:1-6, 10 – December 11, 2016

Expectation. Anticipation. Sitting on the edge of one’s seat in excitement. That sounds like we just hardly can wait another minute for a long-expected, awaited event! Can you think of events which were so exciting for you? A long-awaited trip to a far-away place, a well-deserved promotion at work, or finally celebrating a wonderful wedding or a significant anniversary. Can you remember being so excited about these things that you were sitting on the edge of your seat in preparation and anticipation?

“O come, O come, Emmanuel.” This is a familiar hymn we sing in the month of December, in the weeks leading up to Christmas. It is an Advent hymn, full of hope, preparation, and expectation about the Messiah’s coming. Are you sitting on the edge of your seat, waiting for the arrival of Christmas, of the Baby born in Bethlehem? Or, is this just another ho-hum, not-so-exciting occurrence for you?

We all know the Messiah is long-expected. Time and again in the Hebrew scriptures, we hear the prophets declaring their marvelous news, that the Savior and Redeemer of Israel is coming. The heir to King David’s throne is coming to reign over Israel. But, this week, this passage from the prophet is a little different. We turn to the prophecy from Isaiah 35, starting at verse 1: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.” Here, the prophet is talking about what will happen in the future.

Here, the prophet talks about all creation: the wilderness, the dry land, and the desert. Large parts of the land of Israel was parched, inhospitable to both humans and animals. Here, in these verses, we hear about what is going to happen to the land, to creation itself.

As Dr. Michael Chan, one of my commentators, said, “The general theme is that desolate, dry places will be transformed into paradise. Those who live in desert environs can appreciate the transformative power of water on the desert. Overnight, even a small amount of rain can change a dry desert into a vibrant landscape. But Isaiah’s poem moves far beyond the natural consequences of water on the desert. Creation itself will “be glad,” “rejoice,” and sing (verses 1-2). Creation’s praise joins human praise, in recognition of God’s marvelous work.” [1]

Death Valley, a large desert area in southern California, has wildflower blooms every year. Once every ten (or so) years, Death Valley receives an unusual amount of rain from storms that are way out of the ordinary. This causes what is known as a “super bloom,” as happened in spring of 2016. For a number of days, the valley was covered in an unusually huge amount of wildflowers. [2] Talk about anticipation for the coming of the Messiah! Thinking of the super-bloom in Death Valley gives us a foretaste of what we read here in Isaiah, certainly.

Looking at verses 3 and 4: “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.” The prophecy not only refers to creation, it also is talking to the people of this world, the people of our God. According to commentator Dr. Chan, “Like so many other texts in Isaiah, Isaiah 35 confronts fear with promise: “Here is your God … He will come with vengeance … He will come and save you.” In switching to the second person, the prophet leaves nothing to chance, making sure that his audience knows that this message is ‘for you.’[3]

But, what was the situation of these people of Israel? A huge group of them were in exile. Israel was occupied territory, and the occupying forces had been the strong, conquering forces. They took a large number of the people as prisoners back with them to Babylon, to force the good behavior of the whole nation of Israel.

So, the prophet encourages his listeners “to be strong and not be afraid no matter how bad things look at the moment because God will come to their rescue.” [4]  Just think of how so many of them felt, being prisoners of war in a foreign country.  As you can imagine, life for them was lousy. The prophet urged the Israelites to be strong because God will always have the last word. It does not matter, not for the people of Israel, not for us, either. God is in the process of overcoming, and the end result will be a wonderful thing.

May I point out that though we are not prisoners of war like the people of Israel, we face lots of really hard situations in our lives. Personally, in my extended family, we are facing a difficult and sad situation right now. Especially hard on my husband and his sisters. Their elderly father is gradually dying; slipping away. Yes, it is particularly tough for me and my whole family right now. And yes, God is a refuge and strength for our family, a very present help in times of our trouble and difficulty.

This is a challenging time of the year for many people. Carolyn Brown so helpfully reminds us that “many congregations have become sensitive to people for whom it is hard to rejoice at this time of year.” [5] Since her ministry focus is on children, she mentions that this group includes children as well as adults. Imagine how difficult, how confusing, even overwhelming the holidays can be for children, sometimes. (And for adults, too.)

“Children face the same problems that daunt the adults, but do so with different twists.  For one thing, they lack the experience of many Christmases that the adults can draw on to keep a sense of balance.  For another, they feel that as a child they should be totally into the season.  It feels even more unfair to them than to the adults that they are not going to have special gifts or fun family gatherings or decorations.” [6]

I am going to our sister church, Epiphany United Church of Christ, to assist for their Blue Christmas service this coming Wednesday. And, Pastor Kevin will assist me here at St. Luke’s Church for our Blue Christmas service a week from tomorrow, on Monday, Dec. 19th. Often- times, people get overwhelmed by the holidays. Perhaps they have lost a loved one during the past year, and this is the first Christmas with that empty chair. Perhaps there has been some other significant change or major move in their lives. No matter what the event or grief or situation, sometimes people need a refuge, they need a quiet gathering for support in this very busy time.

May I say that Isaiah’s promise is for us—all of us. No matter how hard things seem at the moment, we know that God will eventually win and God’s peace will come to the whole world. God will send joy to us all, despite the difficulties we all go through, on a daily basis. Knowing that, we can be strong and patient.

We can praise God for the witness of the prophet: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;” Do you hear? Creation will be transformed, both the world and the people therein.

We can look forward to that, when Christ comes again in His glory. Soon and very soon, we will see Him face to face. We can sit on the edge of our seats as we await this wonderful, marvelous event. Praise God! The Messiah, the King is coming. We all can sing, “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” and really mean it, truly wait with anticipation and excitement.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] Michael J. Chan, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3118 

[2] http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/03/160302-death-valley-super-bloom-wildflowers-weather/

[3] hael J. Chan, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3118 

[4] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/08/year-third-sunday-of-advent-december-15.html

[5] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/08/year-third-sunday-of-advent-december-15.html

[6] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/08/year-third-sunday-o

f-advent-december-15.html 

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

 

 

Peaceful and Quiet Lives

“Peaceful and Quiet Lives”

1-tim-2-2-pray-message

1 Timothy 2:1-8 – September 18, 2016

It’s good to be in the habit of doing certain things. Say, going to the gym. Exercise is a beneficial thing, and if I go to the gym on a regular basis, like three times a week, I will be healthier for it. Same for other things—like practicing the piano, or practicing football or baseball—it’s beneficial to get into the habit of regular repetition, week in, and week out.

Worship and prayer are regular, comfortable things, things many churches do the same way, week in and week out. Here in our scripture passage today, Paul gives his younger friend Timothy some words of wisdom. Recommendations, if you will, of some things Timothy’s church can do in worship and prayer that will be beneficial to them all.

Reading again from 1 Timothy 2, “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior.”

I’ll stop right there. Not because the rest of the reading is unimportant. No! But, because Paul has so many ideas that are bursting out of him one on top of the other, I am afraid we might be overloaded if I read them all.

Paul begins the chapter by encouraging Timothy to offer prayers for all members of the human family during church services. He mentions prayer in the terms of: petitions (humble, general requests to God), intercessions (requests, pleading for those in need), supplications (requests for ourselves, especially when faced with a crisis) and thanksgivings (expressing gratitude for blessings we receive). [1] All people need to be held up to God in prayer. All. That is, everyone. Not just one particular neighborhood, not just one particular ethnicity, not just one particular denomination. Paul tells Timothy—Paul tells us—pray for all people.

Yes, this is a wonderful passage that gives us the basics of prayer and worship, and lets us know more about Paul’s ideas concerning this important aspect of our lives. However, I was drawn to one particular phrase in this passage that went beyond the basics of worship: that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” I pursued it all week.

I was fascinated to dig into this passage of scripture. I have not read the Pastoral Letters as often as the rest of the New Testament. So, this week was a good excuse for me to dust off those seldom-opened commentaries and brush up on what was going on in this highly charged situation. For, highly charged it certainly was!

There was a complication, in the case of these house churches. Let’s take a look at the historical context. In the first century, small house churches like the ones where Timothy and Paul worshipped were in a precarious situation. They were constantly involved in “the struggle to secure and maintain a foothold within a hostile environment, where political authorities would always tend to be suspicious of the little house groups whose legal status was at best ambiguous and be ready to act against them at short notice with little excuse.” [2] Many of these small groups of emerging Christians desperately wanted to gain basic respect. Not even respectability, but hoping for just a bit of respect from the authorities.

These groups, or house churches, are identical to house churches meeting all over the world today, in fear for their leaders, if not the group members’ very lives. House churches in parts of Vietnam and Thailand, China, Pakistan, Nepal, and large parts of the Middle East. These groups are—today, here and now—struggling to survive in precarious political situations.

Is it any wonder that these small house churches wanted to pray for those in authority over them, so that they might have some peace and quiet? Quiet and tranquil lives?

Good habits—beneficial, certainly! Habits like prayer and worship are something that Paul would tell Timothy that his house church ought to follow, each time they gather.

How does this prayer and worship counteract the complication of overbearing and even unjust authorities that hold sway over these little groups of believers?

Both Paul and Peter tell their friends that the Godly thing to do is to pray for the authorities. I read from Romans 13:1: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” And 1 Peter 2:17: “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.” The New Testament tells us so, in several places, including this letter from Paul to Timothy.

We can see Timothy and his church are prompted to pray for the government. As Rev. Findlayson comments, “We are encouraged to pray for the political process such that it provides an environment where ‘we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness’ (verse 2:2). This verse actually contains a clue to the content of our prayer for government. We are to pray for “peace”, but what kind of peace? Is it peace in the sense of freedom from war, social and industrial strife and revolution?” [3]

Ah. We have arrived at the topic of the day. The theme of our service today. What kind of peace do we pray for, indeed?

I have been talking about peace ever since February, the beginning of Lent. Remember, I went to a number of different churches, church groups, and schools to ask individuals what their personal definition of peace was. What is peace to you?                I got many fascinating definitions and expressions. Everything ranging from “Peace is serenity” to “Peace is Jesus Christ in my heart” to “Peace is quiet and calm” and “Peace is no war and no fighting.” And, a whole lot of other things, besides.

This kind of peace Paul describes is not just personal peace, and individual peace. This kind of peace Paul talks about is peace in the larger sense. Peace among regions, between people groups, and even between countries. We can see the progression in Paul’s thought. The spread of truth and of the Good News of Jesus Christ is facilitated when peace exists among the nations. In Paul’s day, the Roman Empire, the Roman transportation system and the Pax Romana made the spread of the Gospel easier. Then as today, peaceful interaction between countries and regions opens doors for the Good News.

See what Paul says in verse 4. God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” So then, when we pray for government and for the authorities, we can confidently pray that there be peace for the maximizing of the spread of the Good News.

Paul gives us the basics of prayer and worship. Remember what I often say? Prayer time is one of my favorite times in the worship service. Paul tells us we are to pray for all people; and we are to follow Paul’s lead in supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings. The intention of such prayers is so that we Christians in society will be able to live tranquil and quiet lives. This isn’t me saying it. It’s the apostle Paul!

Regardless of whether there is peace in our church, peace in our neighborhood, or peace in our country, prayer is always a good idea. A close relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is the reason we are here. Praise God! Thank You, Jesus. Alleluia, amen.

If anyone would like to know more about how to come to know God in a closer, more intimate way, I would be glad to tell you.

[1]  http://www.lectionarystudies.com/sunday25ce.html Rev. Bryan Findlayson, Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources.

[2] New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary on 1 Timothy, James D.G. Dunn, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994)

[3] http://www.lectionarystudies.com/sunday25ce.html Rev. Bryan Findlayson, Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

 

 

Struggle for Liberation

“Struggle for Liberation”

Isa 61-1 freedom, liberty word cloud

Isaiah 61:1-3 – August 14, 2016

Has anyone listened to the news? Or, read the newspaper lately? Or, checked out the headlines on their computer news sites? Other than the Olympics—which is some positive, uplifting news, indeed, and a much needed boost in this mixed-up world—there is very little positive going on in the world right now.

Bombings in Thailand, and wide-spread flooding in the Gulf Coast. Not to mention the violence in Milwaukee, poor economic forecast and drought-stricken areas covering large sections worldwide. Add to that, the rise in the prison population in the United States, complicated by the surge in unemployment in many urban areas across the country. Problem upon problem. What can we do about all of this? It makes me feel helpless, and hopeless.

Our Scripture passage from the Hebrew Bible comes from the book of Isaiah, chapter 61. As we read through the first two verses, we might just as well be reading the headlines from the daily paper or from a news site online, or listening to the news on the radio or television. Chapter 61 talks about the poor, those who are captive, brokenhearted, and those in prison. With one huge exception: the prophet has been chosen and anointed by the Lord to bring help and hope to those very people.

Reading from Isaiah 61 again: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. God has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, margto proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Praise God! The Lord is listening to the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives and the prisoners!

The prophet knows very well he has been sent and deputized to go to these people who are down and out. On the outskirts, on the margins of society. In this world today, so many people are poor, and captive, and prisoners. Outside of this country, certainly. But, even within this country. I am certain there are many people on the outskirts and margins of society very near this church, in a two mile-radius all the way around St. Luke’s Church.

I am preaching through the United Church of Christ’s Statement of Mission for my summer sermon series. This week, our sentence from the mission statement says: “Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called: to join oppressed and troubled people in the struggle for liberation.”

This call from the statement of mission certainly echoes Isaiah 61. The prophet is clearly joining oppressed and troubled people. On the outskirts, on the margins of society.

Our Lord Jesus read this very passage from the prophet Isaiah when He started His ministry. Right after Jesus was baptized, He went to Nazareth. While in the synagogue, He was given the opportunity to read from Scripture. This was the passage Jesus read. After reading these verses, “20 Then He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on Him. 21 He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’”

We have the prophet in the time of Isaiah sent to the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. We have our Lord Jesus saying—at the beginning of His ministry—that He has been sent to the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. And, we have the United Church of Christ’s Mission Statement saying that we—all of us—have been sent to the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized.

Jesus chose to hang out with these “down and out” type people, deliberately.

In fact, Jesus was soundly criticized. In the Gospel of Mark, the religious leaders get all righteous on Jesus for hanging out and eating with tax collectors and other “sinners.” The super-righteous Pharisees would not even allow themselves to come near these second-class citizens! That’s how much better they considered themselves. But, our Lord Jesus willingly associated with these “sinners,” these people who according to religious law were ritually unclean.

Jesus came to earth to reach out to all people, to bring the good news of the Gospel to everyone. Jesus came to the tax collectors just as much as the Pharisees, to free all people from their spiritual bondage. To liberate all people, so that we could be free, indeed!

Isn’t that just what God has been doing, all along? All throughout biblical history, and throughout the history of the church? We can follow that thread of liberation through the Hebrew Scriptures, highlighted by the Exodus, where the Jewish people were freed from slavery in Egypt. A huge liberation, to be sure!

We can follow the additional freedoms from oppression and liberations from captivity stated in the Bible. The book of Judges has one after another. The books of the Kings of Judah and Israel, more periodic liberation. The return from captivity of both Judah and Israel. Then, the ultimate liberation from captivity—humanity’s freedom from the bondage to sin and death, paid for us by Jesus Christ and His death on the cross.

Praise God! We have been set free from this bondage of sin and death. The physical, mental, emotional and psychological shackles that kept us all bound as prisoners have been loosened. Thank You, Jesus! I am so very, very happy and grateful and thankful.

Jesus encourages us—each of us—to reach out in the same way. We are to reach out to the poor, the brokenhearted, the oppressed. That is our part, to offer this freedom from bondage to those we meet.

I know what some people might say. “I am just one person. The task is much, much too big. Plus, I haven’t been trained in mission, or evangelism, or chaplaincy, or how to preach.”

Let me tell you a story. A young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement. She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t begin to make a difference!”

The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied, “Well, I made a difference to that one!” [1]

Remember, our sentence from the mission statement says: “Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called: to join oppressed and troubled people in the struggle for liberation.” Exactly so. You and I can do what we are able. No matter how small or how big it might be.

What can I do? This task of freeing the starfish—I mean, people from the penalty of bondage and death? What can we do to join oppressed and troubled people, and sit with them in their time of need? Walk with them through their difficulties?

I know it seems like a small thing, but I go regularly to play for a hymn sing at a nursing home in Chicago. I know the seniors appreciate my playing. What about donating to the Maine Township food pantry? I know it seems small, but there are hungry people throughout the community who will thank us.

Let us follow the prophet, and follow our Lord Jesus in this worthy effort. Engage with others. Find something to do, or say, and do it!

Please God, help us all in this endeavor. Amen!

[1] Adapted from The Star Thrower by Loren C. Eiseley

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

 

A Great Multitude

“A Great Multitude”

Rev 7 multitude white-robes

Revelation 7:9-17 – April 17, 2016

This past Friday, April 15, 2016, I convened a Peace Breakfast at Kappy’s Restaurant, here in Morton Grove. We had a diverse group assembled! Not quite as diverse as this great multitude that John talked about in Revelation 7, but still, diverse. Culturally, ethnically, and religiously different from one another.

Let’s step back, and think about the book of Revelation. This is not your typical bible passage to read on a Sunday morning. Not your usual sermon text, either. The book of Revelation is a series of interconnected visions alerting believers to the last days of the church.

Chapter 7 comes towards the beginning of John’s visions.

I’d like everyone to think of an old-fashioned radio or television serial, in multiple parts, or episodes. Here we have yet another fantastic episode of this amazing book.

For centuries, many preachers, teachers, and bible interpreters have read Revelation, and completely pick it apart. Find all types of supposed references to actual people, places and things. Use it as a guidebook for the End Times. It sounds like the political hype we lament but can’t quite seem to escape. (Let me say—bible interpreters have been “identifying” people, places and things in Revelation for centuries. Different anti-Christs, different identifications for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and all the rest—every century, every era, every place.)

If John wrote this book to bring hope to his readers, how in the world can this passage of Revelation provide a different, more life-giving vision to us, today?

Our bible passage today opens with a great multitude. It’s like John has a huge video screen in front of him. He’s watching this fantastic vision play out in front of him.

I encourage you all to get into the spirit of this passage. Shut your eyes, and imagine yourself seated in a heavenly theater (an iMax theater, if that helps you). John is seated right next to you, and suddenly, you see a great multitude on this massive screen in front of you. Every racial group, every ethnicity, every language spoken. All of them! All the things, as the young people say today.

Yes, in the larger picture, all of these people in the great multitude are going to go through a time of great trial. However—I would like to focus on this multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual multitude of people.

We are all aware of other separations and designations for groups of people. Upper class, working class. City folk, country folk, North side, South side. With all of this fantastic stuff going on in the book of Revelation, on that huge theater screen in front of us, who has time to think about these divisions? Who would be concerned—in heaven? Standing before the throne of God Almighty, in the full sight of God.

Yet—here in this world, here in the United States, in the Chicago area, those things do matter. As a pastor, I talk to a number of people many times in a week. Some of these people share about their fears and hopes for the future. More and more, I notice a shift in the mindsets of people—a shift towards deeper feelings of uncertainty and general anxiety.

I am distressed and dismayed at the overt anger, undisguised racism, and blatant xenophobia that is increasingly happening in this country. The shouting, yelling, name-calling, and general mud-slinging in this political primary process, just for an example. Note: I am not taking sides, but I am truly dismayed by the marked increase in such attitudes due to people’s ethnicity, culture, or religion. That is what I see as a big problem today.

Perhaps I am an idealist, but I would like to believe that we as a nation are truly a melting pot. This country is one of the most like this image, this part of the vision that John saw. That is such a strength of the United States! Yay! Go, us!!

We are going to switch gears. Let us look at the beginnings of the church.

In Acts, shortly after the day of Pentecost, a disagreement came up in the church. As Rev. Findlayson mentions, “The Jewish world was divided between Aramaic-speaking Jews from Palestine [Hebrews—home grown], and Greek-speaking Jews from the dispersion [or Hellenists—who had grown up outside Palestine]. Racial tension, often focused on religious purity, existed in the wider Jewish community and found its way into the New Testament church. [The tension] revealed itself in a dispute over the care of widows. The [Greek-speaking Jews] claimed that their widows were not getting a fair share of the church’s welfare budget.”

Do you hear the problem? Two separate groups of people in the early Church—all Jews, and one group—a minority group, no less—claimed they were being overlooked. Discriminated against. Now, multiply that 100 times. No, 1000 times. And, you begin to see the problems we all have today with rampant, widespread hatred, racism, fear, and xenophobia.

I guess I was one of those people who wanted to believe that we as a country and maybe even as a human race were becoming more open, integrated, and generous. I wanted to believe that humans were moving past this kind of hatred, fear, and violence. I thought we were on the way towards making it as difficult as possible for anyone to intimidate or harm others simply because they are of a certain religion, or racial background, or culture.

What can conquer such deep set feelings?

John 3:16 is a wonderful verse. So much promise, so much love, so much grace. And—so much power!

Let us consider John 3:16. I suspect many of you can say it with me. We are just going to quote the beginning of the verse: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” I wondered: let’s unpack this verse. God loves? With a God-sized love. We all agree. God gave His Son—God’s ultimate Gift. Again, we all agree.  

The last phrase of this sentence? God so loved—the world.

Who is not part of the world that God loved? Let us consider racist feelings. Does God love the racist person? Yes. How about the person who is racially profiled? Yes.

Let’s consider xenophobic fears. Does God love the person who is so afraid of people who look different from them, or speak another language, or come from another part of the world? Yes, God does. God loves everyone. No matter what.

That is the hope we can gather from this passage in Revelation 7 today. God loves you. God loves me. Even though we may be flawed, and make mistakes, and do or say bad things. God still loves us.

The Peace Breakfast was a beginning, a chance to continue the conversation. We all live and work together, in community. Let’s promote positivity and friendship, not distrust and alienation. Here, in Niles and Morton Grove—and in Des Plaines, Glenview, Skokie—all over the Chicago area—we have such a multitude of diverse people! And it’s an opportunity to shine forth as a light of the Gospel, right here on this corner of Shermer and Harlem.

Finally, we can all praise God along with the great multitude from Revelation, and say, “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!)

Check and Double-Check!

“Check and Double-Check!”

Acts 17 bereans

Acts 17:1-5a, 10-14 – September 13, 2015

When I attended seminary I had a handful of classes that were absolutely superb in every way. Interesting course material, fascinating professors, and assignments I could totally sink my teeth into. One of these courses was Reformed Tradition, taught at the Presbyterian seminary on the south side of Chicago. This course highlighted the Reformed Protestant church practices and theology since the 1500’s. And, I absolutely loved it.

One of the strong memories I have of this course is studying the practices of the Reformed missionaries of past centuries who were called to cross barriers (and in some cases, also cross continents and oceans). They took the message of the Gospel to those who had not yet heard the Good News of Jesus Christ.

That’s just what Paul and his friends are doing here in Acts 17. This week is the last of our Summer Sermon Series, Postcards from the Early Church. When last we met our intrepid heroes, (in Acts 16) they had crossed from Asia into Greece, into Europe. Here, in both towns of Thessalonica and Berea, they start preaching and speaking with the groups of Jews living in both areas, and they also preach to their Greek neighbors and friends.

To go back to the course I loved in seminary, Reformed Tradition, I discovered that many Protestant missionaries and mission agencies had a master plan. The missionaries would not just go and preach the Gospel. No! They almost always had an excellent method behind their outreach. They not only would start a small church or chapel, but would also often develop a health clinic, sometimes even a hospital. And—the missionaries almost always began a school. They wanted to teach people; not only how to read, but also teach math and other subjects; sometimes even beginning institutions of higher learning in far flung areas.

So, reading and literacy were of extremely high regard to the missionaries! This went along with the importance of each person being able to read the Scriptures for themselves. We can see that translating the Bible became a high priority, too.

What does this have to do with our Scripture passage for today, you might ask? After Paul and his friends were thrown out of the town of Thessalonica, they went down the road to the next town of Berea, fifty miles away. We don’t know very much about Berea, except—the Bereans eagerly searched the Hebrew Scriptures after they heard Paul’s message. Paul wasn’t just delivering a line, or trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes, no! The Bereans not only read, but diligently searched and sifted through the Scriptures to make sure that what Paul and his friends were telling them was true!

The literacy rate in Jewish communities has always been extremely high. For millennia it’s been this way. It’s marvelous to learn how to read, as well as do math and learn other subjects, too. Literacy has been a strong priority among large groups of Protestant missionaries, too. Reading the Scriptures is and has remained a primary goal, but just think about it. As we teach people how to read, we are also teaching them how to think, and how to reason. And, as more people in these far away mission areas learn more and more, the quality and standard of living rises in the whole community, as well! All very good things.

Dr. Luke doesn’t tell us too much about the Bereans. Except, the people in the town of Berea, in the foothills of the Olympian mountains, certainly seem like “people of more noble character” than the troublemakers in Thessalonica.

Using an excellent sermon illustration I discovered, “I want you to pretend for a moment that you are a first-century Berean Jew. Now suppose one Saturday a stranger comes into your synagogue and addresses the congregation. He says that his name is Paul, and he brings you the exciting news that the long-awaited Messiah has finally come! No, he didn’t actually restore the [physical] kingdom to Israel, as expected. In fact He was murdered a few years ago by the Romans. But, Paul says, that this is exactly what was supposed to happen to the Messiah, and he seems to prove it from Scripture. So now what do you do? If you are of noble character [as Dr. Luke says], you begin to search the Scriptures yourself to see if what Paul said is true.” [1]

Luke’s word used here in this passage is a legal term. Luke states that “Paul’s appeal to Israel’s Scriptures [was] a legal ‘witness’ to warrant his gospel’s claims about Jesus.”[2] Paul was not just making up imaginary tales, or fabricating fairy stories to put little children to sleep. No! Paul was using the Hebrew Scriptures as competent testimony to back up what he was telling them. And thus, many of the people who heard Paul out, believed what he said. Because they searched the Scriptures and made sure that what Paul was telling them matched with what they knew and already believed.

It’s like fact checking, today. How many people here have “heard something” about someone famous, or about some political candidate? How many people here are not sure where they first “heard it,” but “everyone is talking about it!” Like, for example, some Internet meme or email sob story passed around from person to person that is patently untrue.

My husband is an editor and journalist, working at a trade publication downtown. He takes special delight in exposing these sorts of gossip and misinformation that keep getting passed from one person to another via email, Facebook, and other kinds of social media. One of his favorite online tools is snopes dot com. “Snopes.com is the definitive Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation.”[3]

I can just see some of these people in Berea, going to the library or to the synagogue where the scrolls and books were kept, checking out the sermons that Paul had just preached, as well as the discussion they had afterwards. Making sure—fact checking!—that Paul was the real deal. Dr. Luke tells us, “As a result, many of [the Berean Jews] believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.”
But, wait! This was not the end. Paul and his missionary friends did not have an easy time of it after starting the church in Berea. The people who stirred up things in the previous town heard about Paul and company and how they were having such an effect on the people in Berea. Some of those troublemakers from Thessalonica came over to Berea and made trouble in that town, too. Talk about nasty people! So, Paul’s new friends, the new believers in the Messiah, the Lord Jesus, shipped Paul out of town in a big hurry.

But the church Paul founded in Berea remained. Paul’s work here was done. We know they had a firm basis, since the Berean believers already had a solid foundation in the Hebrew Scriptures.

What about us? Do we have a similar solid foundation? Thank God, we have the Bible translated into English. It was translated for us centuries ago! We can look back to the great job that William Tyndale did in the 1500’s, paving the way for the King James Version, translated just after 1600. And now, today, we have many translations!

We can celebrate those translations, just as we celebrate our freedom to read the Bible, and our ability to study and learn about Scripture. There are still some places in the world today where it is a crime to read and study the Scriptures. I encourage all of you to pick up the Bible. Read a little every day. Become familiar with it. I know some of you do already. There are wonderful helps. Just ask me and I will hook you up with one!

God’s Word is truly a lamp to all of our feet, just as I told the Sunday school children before the sermon. The Bible sheds light on all of our paths. Just as it was with the Berean believers, just as it was with the Apostle Paul and his friends, so it is today. Praise God for God’s Word, freely available to all of us, today.

[1] “The Bereans,” Acts 17:10-14. Sermon delivered 10/25/2009 – Pastor David B. Curtis

[2] Wall, Robert W., Acts, from the New Interpreter’s Commentary series. (Nashville, Abingdon Press: 1994-2004) 239.

[3] http://snopes.com/

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!

Cleanse Your Hearts!

“Cleanse Your Hearts!”

Acts 15 Jerusalem council stained glass

Acts 15:8-9 – August 23, 2015

Conflict resolution is never an easy thing.

I hate to make sweeping statements, but I definitely think that that is one everyone can agree upon. Conflict resolution is never an easy thing.

We could be talking about the rough and tumble of sibling rivalry: “Mom! He started it!” “Did not!” “Yes, you did, too!” Or, a difficulty between neighbors that might get worse and worse, and escalate out of control until someone puts up a spite fence. Or, what about a problem between two employees in the workplace? You know the sort of thing. A disagreement starts between two people. Words are exchanged. Each side is sure they are right! Next thing you know, the whole office has chosen sides, and is squared off against each other.

We have a situation very much like this, in Acts 15. The whole group of believers—in all of the congregations scattered around the Mediterranean by this point—has escalated to the point that we heard about today, during the New Testament reading.

To recap, back in Acts 2, a number of days after our Lord Jesus ascended in to heaven, the few dozen believers have a Pentecost experience! The Holy Spirit comes upon them all, and Peter preaches his remarkable sermon. Not remarkable in and of itself, but remarkable because of the incredible response he got. Hundreds and hundreds of people came to belief in the risen Lord Jesus, in just one day! These were all Jewish believers. And, they continue spreading the Good News to any Jew they encounter. Many more believe, too.

Then, in Acts 8, Philip preaches in Samaria. The Holy Spirit comes upon these half-Jews, and even more people believe in the Good News! The circle of belief and faith continues to become wider and wider. In Acts 10, Peter preaches the Gospel to a Gentile—Roman centurion named Cornelius, and his whole Gentile household. They all believe, too! And, the Holy Spirit comes upon all of them, as well. Peter and the other apostles have the witness of their own eyes. They see that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to Him.” (Acts 10:34b-35)

The Holy Spirit continues to move. The believers continue to preach the Good News to anyone and everyone. It doesn’t matter whether they are Jew or Gentile, slave or free, high class or low born, or any other distinction. All are welcome to come to faith in the risen Lord Jesus.

Which brings us to the beginning of Acts chapter 15. A large number of believers has squared off, one side against the other, over keeping the Jewish laws. Should we, or shouldn’t we? What about Jewish people who never really kept kosher, before they started believing in the risen Jesus? Should they keep 600-plus rules in the Jewish law, now? And what about Gentiles who might have never had any idea about the Jewish laws, before? Should they turn themselves inside out and start keeping kosher, and wearing special clothes, and observing special holidays?

I went to one of the textbooks I had for one of my seminary classes, called Church Administration. (One of the best classes I ever had, in all my years of school!) This book is called Never Call Them Jerks: Healthy Responses to Difficult Behavior by Arthur Boers. Such helpful material on church conflict in this book!

Our situation at the beginning of Acts 15 seems black-and-white. We can see that from verse 5: Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”’ We have group A (or, Aleph) on this side, yelling ‘You’ve got to keep Jewish Law!” and group B (or, Bet) on the other side yelling back, “No, we don’t!” As they continue to bicker and snarl at each other, the argument gets worse and worse!

This argument is a classic case of polarizing! “Reducing issues to ‘black-and-white’ solutions and giving little time to discovering other options.” [1] What will they do now?

Yes, the controversy has busted wide open. Sometimes, people get stuck. They either don’t or can’t move. There they are, in that big, black-and-white argument, no way out. Or, so they think.

At the church council in Jerusalem, there was some discussion. I don’t know how long the discussion went on. There may have been some name-calling, or possibly even getting into fist fights. (I don’t know for sure—this was before the days of reality television.) Adversarial comments could have happened! “using ‘we/they’ language and ignoring or dismissing what is held in common.“ As the argument escalated, I can imagine threatening ultimatums being issued, back and forth. [2]

Here’s an illustration Boers uses: “One snowy morning I drove the high school car pool. I backed my fully loaded van onto a downwardly sloped street. On the slippery pavement, the van would not budge uphill in a forward gear. I could have pushed the accelerator, spun the wheels harder and faster, and gotten nowhere. Instead, I backed partway down the hill, tried the forward gear again, discovered my wheels had found a purchase, and was able to move forward.” [3]

Similarly, we find the apostle Peter taking a step back. Just like the van in this illustration, he backs up. And, he “seeks the common good over the interests of particular parties.” [4] He tries to find some common ground that all can agree on. Peter says, “God, who knows the heart, showed that He accepted the Gentiles by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as God did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for God cleansed their hearts by faith.”

Did you hear? Peter makes the statement, again, that God wants to enter into a relationship with each and every person. That means, each person in his time, in the first century, just as much as today, in the twenty-first century. God does not discriminate! And, neither should we.

What’s more, God cleanses everyone’s heart! Praise God, we don’t need to meticulously follow the Jewish Law code. We don’t have to wear special clothes, or observe special holidays, or have restricted food choices. God has cleansed each of our hearts, through faith! Peter goes on to say, “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

Praise God! Alleluia! We are not saved by following each and every little rule in the Jewish Law code. We are not saved by following each and every little rule in recent rulebooks, like no dancing, and no card-playing, no movies, and no mixed bathing.

It was a little early in the formation of Christianity for the apostle Paul to formulate his theological statement in the letter to the Ephesians, some years down the road. But I can hear the beginnings of it being hammered out, right here. Paul’s triumphant words from Ephesians 2:8-9. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Praise God! Not just Jews, not just Greeks, not just people with brown hair, not just people who are right-handed. But everyone. God does not discriminate! What’s more, God cleanses everyone’s heart! We can all say Alleluia! Amen!

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!

[1] Boers, Arthur Paul, Never Call Them Jerks, (United States of America: the Alban Institute, 1999.), 72.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 64.

[4] Ibid, 72.