Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Old, The New, The Now

Two of the stories that show up in the lectionary this week are about healing, about people being raised from the dead. We are tempted to dismiss these as fantasy, as stories that don't fit our scientific world view.

But what about their meaning? Not understanding the "how" shouldn't stop us from looking for the "why" in these stories.

A few years ago, I imagined a third story of healing. I tried to take the situations of the characters of the Old and New Testaments and imagine what story of miraculous hope an equivalent character today might tell.

This was presented in place of a sermon. Three women stood across the front of the stage, to tell this story from the point of view of the Old, the New, and the Now. (minimal stage props--the widow of Zaraphath was the oldest and wore a scarf over her head. The widow of Nain was a bit younger, but in a conservative looking dress. The divorcee was in dress slacks-very fashionable and contemporary.)

I hope you are blessed by this different way of looking at the scriptures.

The Old, The New, The Now (From 1 Kings 17:17-24, Luke 7:11-17)

1:  I am the widow of Zaraphath. Mine is a well known story in your Old Testament, but you don’t know much about me personally, except that I am a widow and Elijah helped me. You probably apply all the usual stereotypes, like poor, dependent, hopeless. Please…don’t. I was a woman of means, and a little cantankerous because I know that I am good at what I do. Even after my husband died, I remained the mistress of my house, in charge of finances, servants, and raising my son. My house is a fine two story building, one of the best in town. My son was strong and smart and would take over once he was of age. Things looked good for us. Losing my husband was awful, but I still had hope.

The New (Luke 7:11-17)
1:  I am the widow of Nain. Never heard of Nain? I’m not surprised. It’s just one of thousands of little Jewish villages outside of Nazareth likely to be forgotten by history. The details of who I am will be forgotten too, I’m nobody special. When my husband died, people rallied to support me emotionally, but they didn’t have to do anything else. My son was a capable young man. He had taken up his father’s business, and we were doing well.  I was eyeing the young women of our town and working on a little matchmaking. According to our customs, when my son married, we’d build another level on my house and they’d move in to the main area and I would be in the "granny suite." I could hardly wait. I made it through the tough years and now life looked good again. I knew I’d be the best grandma ever! Losing my husband was awful, but I still had hope.

The Now
1:  I attend your church.  I’m one of those regular folks sitting beside you in the pews most Sundays. I’m a single parent, you might know what I do for a living, you might have taught my son in Sunday School or eaten my famous spicy chili at potluck.  (I’ll take this moment to apologize right now for the heartburn caused by my last jalepeno stew! Next time I’ll put a label on it!) A number of you helped me during that dark time after my husband left. Sometimes people were…less than helpful, but I know it was difficult for you to understand too. There’s no perfect way to deal with that kind of pain. There’s a lot that you still don’t know about me, a lot I haven’t felt I can share. My husband leaving was awful, but I had my job and my son. I know other people who have had hard times too, and survived. I saw some possibility for healing. I had hope.

The Old
2: I lost it all when the drought came to our land. It was relentless, destroying everything. First, I used all my reserves. We ate some of the sheep, the rest died because there was no grass. I let all the servants go. Finally I sold my jewelry and the furniture. My son scrounged for firewood, but there was nothing to find. Our economy tanked because no one had anything left to buy or sell.  My neighbours were desperate and starving, many walked away from their homes.  There was no charity available, even for a widow. We were down to our last bit of oil and flour and knew we were going to die. Then my son got sick. Hope was dead.

The New
2: I lost it all when my son died. The pain of that loss was unbearable. A parent shouldn’t have to bury a child, it’s just not the way things are supposed to happen.  After my husband died, my son was everything to me, my happiness, my livelihood, my future. When he died, the business and my income disappeared because I couldn’t do it without him. I would be a charity case for the rest of my life. My hopes for grandchildren and the continuation of our family were gone. I didn’t feel I could even get up in the mornings.  I just had to make it through the funeral, to honour him, then I could curl up and die. Hope was dead.

The Now
2: I lost it all. You know how it seems sometimes that things happen in 3s? When the economy bottomed out, so did the job I thought was secure.  Then some of my bad choices came back to bite me. The expensive house, the new car, furniture, and some embarrassing habits, caught up to me and demanded payment. I was reeling with the pressure, the stress, the demands from every direction. I tried to hide it from my son and everyone else.  A lot of it was embarrassing financial stuff, so most of you at church had no idea what was going on. I was holding together by a thread that was rapidly fraying. Then my son, my only child, got hit by a car on his way home from school. I rushed to the hospital, to be beside him.  This was the last blow for me, hope was dead.

The Old
3: I blamed that foreigner, Elijah. From that day he met me at the town gate, he was a problem. We had to share our last bit of food with him and give him a room. He said it was a miracle the oil and flour didn’t run out, but if it really was a miracle, why didn’t God give us something better, like have the ravens bring us some meat or something. Why didn’t God end the drought? Yahweh wasn’t my god anyway, I had always worshiped Baal. Then, my son became deathly ill and I knew he was dying.  I thought that was because of Elijah too. Elijah’s presence in my house brought the attention of his God to me to punish me for my past sins.

The New
3. I didn’t know who to blame, the grief was too much. I was angry with God, but I couldn’t say that out loud in front of the priests. I’d have to rely on them for charity. I wasn’t sure how my neighbours would react if I was honest with them, I was just so alone with the pain in spite of all the good people around me. Then a man met me at the town gate. Just as the funeral procession was heading out to the cemetery, he walked up to me and said; “Do not weep.” I couldn’t believe the audacity, what a thing to say to a mother at the funeral of her son! Then he stopped the whole procession by putting his hand on my son’s stretcher. I was horrified, but didn’t know what to say. None of us knew how to react.

The Now
3. I blamed myself. I was too distracted, too busy to walk my son home from school. I could have arranged a ride, I should have been there! I made a quick phone call to a friend from church. She met me at the hospital doors, then sat with me in the waiting room during the long hours of surgery. She called the church and people started praying. My friend brought coffee and Kleenexes and hugged me. The waiting was endless. I felt like I could die.

 The Old
4.  Elijah took my son and went upstairs. I couldn’t see him, but I heard his voice pleading with his God. But what’s the point? People this sick, especially children, always died. Then I heard heavy footsteps coming slowly down the stairs. I began to cry for my loss, my anger, the future, my poor son. But Elijah was carrying a living boy! My son’s fever was gone, his eyes were bright and he smiled as Elijah gave him to me. I told him that now I finally believed he was a man of the true God! With this God making an appearance in our land, I have hope that things are going to change!

The New
4.  We were standing there confused, when the strange man loudly told my son to rise up. I was shocked at those words, but more shocked when my dead son sat up. Very much alive, he began to talk to us! The crowd was greatly afraid, but I was just about flattened with joy! I reached out my arms and the man gave my son back to me and the whole crowd started to praise God and proclaim that a new prophet, as great as the old ones, had arisen to bless our people. Within days the word had spread everywhere and there was new hope in our land.

The Now
4. After what seemed an eternity, the doctor came through the white doors. I stood, scared of what I’d hear. With compassion in his eyes, he gently told me that my son had come close to dying, but that somehow, it looked now like he was stable and would pull through. We went in to see him. God gave my child back to me. Where I thought life was ending, it would begin again.

The Old
5.  My story is thousands of years old. It’s recorded in the Hebrew scriptures and has been used in temples and synagogues. It comes up once every three years in your Christian liturgy too. I think you can tell that, like every good story, it’s been shaped and polished. It’s there to serve a purpose. To witness to the wonder and truth of a God who gives hope to the hopeless, has power over death, and whose message is going to spread to the ends of the earth.
You don’t hear anything about the rest of my life. But I’ll tell you, it wasn’t all miraculous. We lived, we struggled, we laughed, and eventually we died. The thing that changed for us is that we did it all with a hope in a caring God for whom death is not an ending, but a beginning for new life. God didn’t always give me what I wanted, but I always had what I needed.

The New
5. My story is old too, almost as old as the story of Elijah that it is patterned after. Did you notice the parallels? The stories are almost exactly the same, there is even a direct quote from I kings in it for those who know their Old Testament. The message is the same. It was repeated because people needed to hear it again. They needed a message of hope that fit for their times. Just like Elijah was sent from God to bring new hope to the ancient world, Jesus was sent to bring new hope to my world. I guess you’d call mine ancient too, but for us it was pretty immediate!
You don’t hear anything about the rest of my life. But I’ll tell you, it wasn’t all miraculous. We lived, we struggled, we laughed, and eventually we died. I wasn’t always the best grandma, my son’s kids were....challenging. The thing that changed for us is that we lived each day with hope in a God that brings healing out of chaos, life where we see only death. God provides what we need.

The Now.
5. My story is now, it might even be your story, or have parts of your story in it. It’s not written down in scriptures that have been used in synagogues and churches. Perhaps instead of being black ink on white pages, the stories you and I tell about our lives right now are like living scriptures, informed by and interpreting the history of God’s people. They are a way that we carry God’s story forward in time. The parallels are clearly there. They move us forward, the message still gives hope when there is nowhere else to turn.
I can’t tell you about the rest of my life, because it’s in progress, it’s not a finished piece of scripture, it won’t ever be part of church liturgy. I can tell you that my son lived. He’s learning to walk again, and with every hard earned step forward, we thank God for life. We thank God for the community that stood by us, that helped us keep going.
We’ve got a long way to go, a lot of struggles to get through. I’m thinking about maybe talking to my deacons or pastor about my bad choices and my financial problems.  I don’t know yet if I can do it. One thing I do know, is that even in the darkest places, God is able to give life. I think that now I can trust God to provide for what I need.

Be encouraged to think of your life as a continuation of the story, a picking up and reliving of the great themes of God’s people throughout history. The hope, the new life, the continuation of God’s love is apparent in the Old, the New, and the Now.


Thursday, 26 May 2016

Aspects of Prayer

1 Kings 8:22-23, Psalm 6:1-9, Luke 7:1-10, Gal. 1:11-24

Most of 1 Kings chapter 8 and Psalm 6 are prayers. Reading them, I was struck by how many diverse aspects of prayer come through. Praise, confession, intercession, assurance, struggle and blessing are all here. The shape of prayer is a lot like the shape of a worship service.

(At least all the aspects are there if you read the bits the lectionary listings leave out. Read through to the end of chapter 8, and don't leave out verse 10 of the Psalm!)

Solomon prays at the dedication of the temple.The words of praise are amazing and revealing. Surrounded by cultures (think Egypt) who worship their kings as gods, here the king declares; "...there is no God like you in heaven above or earth beneath." There is only one God. This reaffirms the Jewish monotheism in the face of pluralistic cultures. Solomon also declares that God's nature is steadfast love, based on a mutual covenant with the people. Praise is an aspect of prayer that puts the pray-er, whether a king or a regular peasant, in their proper place. It is an admission that; "God is God, and I am not."

In prayer, the aspect of "I am not God", comes out strongly again in the aspect of confession. Verse 46 is another great bit attributed to the king. "...for there is no one who does not sin..." Confessing our failings is an attitude reset, a turning to God for guidance. Even the king (and maybe more so the king) falls away from God in life.

Solomon intercedes for the people, petitioning God to listen and respond. He repeats promises, saying that God always delivers, and he blesses the people.

All of this seems to portray Solomon as a wise and good king, humble and speaking into a joyful occasion.

Nothing is ever quite this squeaky clean and clear. In chapter 2-3, Solomon consolidates his reign by the usual means, killing rivals including his brother and making political marriages. There is a lot in this chapter 8 prayer that shows all is not well in the kingdom. There are references to drought, pestilence, and famine. John C. Holbert, professor of homiletics at Perkins school of theology, compares this scene of Solomon praying to a scene from the "Godfather" movie where mob boss Michael Corleone is attending the baptism of his baby while his hit men are out murdering his rivals.

Perhaps this prayer and it's pray-er are symbolic for us. Each one of us, as ruler over our own small domains, are never innocent. We misuse our power, assign blame to others, and need to take time to refocus on God. While there is no excuse to act like a mob boss, there are likely things in all of our lives that "clash" like this. In the prayer, Solomon seems aware that he is not God. That only God can make things right. Perhaps the aspects of prayer help us to see God more clearly, and to find blessing in our not being God ourselves.

Psalm 6 is an amazing little poem. The psalmist cries out to God for rescue from troubles. My NRSV Bible has a subtitle for the Psalm that reads; "Prayer for Recovery from Grave Illness." After reading it, I disagree with the title. I think the psalmist (likely David) isn't physically ill. I think he is running in terror away from his enemies. And when David runs, he has his band of elite and loyal soldiers with him. The amazing thing is that David does not turn and kill his pursuers, he doesn't even ask God to kill them. The lectionary omits verse 10-likely because it sounds offensive to our ears. But I don't think it should be omitted. Verse 10 is David saying that his enemies will be ashamed and turn back. That, to me, is amazing. Instead of being offensive, David's response can be read as merciful and measured. He leaves it to God. David trusts God to deal with them. He doesn't ask for them to be killed, but confronted with truth---hence the shame.

Prayer is a way we can give over our compulsion to control things over to God. Prayer acknowledges that God is God, and I am not. That is amazing.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Invited to respond

For Pentecost Sunday, May 15, 2016

Acts 2:1-21

Being thoroughly Mennonite, and of a logical and practical bent, this story of the coming of the Holy Spirit has never been a favourite of mine. In fact, I struggle to "get it." It makes me uncomfortable because the wind and fire and speaking in tongues comes across to me as weird, the property of charismatic, arm-waving, fainting-type churches that I don't understand. Personality wise, I'm a type that values self-control, and this Holy Spirit stuff is out of control-at least out of human control. It makes me want to quickly flip back through the pages of the New Testament till I get to the beatitudes in Matthew 5. Good practical stuff I can understand.

I can't, however, avoid this Pentecost scripture. It's a classic baptism scripture and is all about being empowered to be God's people and do God's work.

So I read it again this morning, as I prepare to lead a baptism service on Sunday. Surprisingly, I discovered more resonance with my logical and practical sides than I ever have.

First, I resonate with the fact that the believers are together. As believers, we need each other, especially when strange things are happening. We need more sets of eyes, a variety of viewpoints, the idealism of youth, and the experience that comes with long life. I mistrust the "lone prophet" type proclamations and visions-we need the gathered body to sort through our ideas and experiences, to keep us accountable to the whole instead of what might be selfish or deluded.

Secondly,  even though nothing in my experience equates with the wind, fire, and speaking in tongues, I have experienced the equipping presence of God. There have simply been too many times when I have been provided with exactly what I need to minister into a situation-or someone else shows up who has what I do not, for me to doubt that God's spirit is with us. I can understand this story of God equipping the people because I have been equipped.

Thirdly, and the most exciting bit for me right now, is the description in verses 5-12 of the kind of people to whom God's Spirit is available. It is for a great crowd from everywhere and composed of everyone. (Even Romans and Arabs are mentioned in this Jerusalem crowd.) The crowd comes, not because of what the disciples do, but because of God. There is nothing secret or weird here, it's public, it's in the open, and people can chose how they respond. No one is being controlled or coerced or given preferential treatment.

Fourthly, I love the way Peter responds. He stands up and articulates what he knows. This helps people to understand and perhaps removes some "weirdness" from the situation. He strongly speaks an inclusive message. Just everyone hears the message, everyone (Jew, Greek, male, female, young, old, slave, free...) is enabled and equipped to do something. That is great for us practically minded folks!

Today when I read this scripture, it isn't so weird. I hear affirmation that we need each other. I realize that God equips us in ways we understand, God impartially draws people in and offers the Spirit. Everyone is given gifts to share with each other.

It's actually rather simple and practical. God will provide what we need. We are all invited to respond.