Touched By God

Sorry this is delayed!  It’s been a crazy couple of days and I’ve been in meetings and buried under a pile of email.  Here is Sunday’s sermon!  It was such a fun one to preach.  I found this beautiful note on prayer separated into four paragraphs – I had people in the congregation stand up and read it from their seats.

1 Kings 19:4-8

Touched By God

When Bruce and I lived in Atlanta, we experienced two difference versions of those hot southern summers. I experienced the version where I drove my car to Emory University or Grady Memorial Hospital, walked from the parking garage to an air conditioned building, said, “Phew! It’s hot out there!” to the first person I saw and got on with my day. Bruce experienced the version where he worked outside for most of the day on hot macadam and came home exhausted, dehydrated and sunburned.

If you ever hear me say, “Oh, summers weren’t that bad in Atlanta,” you might want to go to Bruce for a second opinion.

Our physical appearance reflected the different versions of summer that we experienced. We would often head north for an extended weekend to visit our families, they would look at my pasty white skin and we would have some version of the following conversation:

Them: Why are you so white? Don’t you live in the south?
Me: I work in an air conditioned building. You cannot get tan if you are not actually out in the sun.
Them: Bruce is tan. He looks like he lives in the south.
Me: Bruce works outside.
Them: Oh.

It’s true, right? Artificial methods aside, if you do not spend time outside in the sun, you will not look like you have spent time in the sun.

A few weeks ago I received an email from a member of my mom’s church in Connecticut. In the email she told me about a book that she was reading that made her think of me. The book is called The Dieter’s Prayer Book, by Heather Harplan Kapp. In it, Kapp references Brennan Manning’s book, Lion and Lamb. Manning – who is an American contemplative priest, author and speaker – writes in this book:

The most important thing that ever happens in prayer is letting ourselves be loved by God. ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ (Psalm 46:10) It’s like slipping into a tub of hot water and letting God’s love wash over us, enfold us. Prayer is like sun bathing. When you spend a lot of tie in the sun, people notice it. They say, “You’ve been at the beach.” You look like you’ve been out in the sun because you’ve got a tan. Prayer – or bathing in the Son of God’s love (Son bathing?) – makes you look different. The awareness of being loved brings a touch of lightness and a tint of brightness, and sometimes, for no apparent reason, a smile plays at the corner of your mouth. Through prayer you not only know God’s love, you realize it; you are in conscious communion with it.

“Through prayer you not only know God’s love, you realize it; you are in conscious communion with it.”

What does it mean to bath in the Son of God’s love? What would we look like if we made a constant effort to be touched by God; to feel the warmth of God’s love move deep within us and give our bodies and a gentle glow? What would we feel like if we opened ourselves up to God’s touch every single day of our lives?

This morning’s scripture comes from the book of 1 Kings, which is the first of two books that provide a continuous account of Israel’s history from approximately 970 BCE to 560 BCE. We enter into the story this morning when the prophet Elijah is in the middle of a meltdown of epic proportions. Leading up to this passage, there had been extreme hostility between Elijah, a prophet of the Lord, and Ahab, the King of Israel and his queen, Jezebel. There were several reasons Elijah was on the brink of a nervous breakdown. King Ahab thought that Elijah – who had predicted the three-year drought – was a troublemaker for Israel. There were disputes between Elijah, a prophet of the Lord, of YAHWEH, and the prophets Ba’al, a Canaanite god thought to be associated with weather and fertility. A battle eventually erupted between Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al and the prophets of Ba’al were eventually all slaughtered. Queen Jezebel threatened Elijah with retaliation. And Elijah, now fearing for his life, fled Israel and took a journey out into the wilderness.

The interesting thing to note about Elijah’s journey is the fact he inadvertently took the same journey that the Israelites took when they were fleeing Pharaoh in Exodus in reverse. He went first to Beersheba, out into the wilderness and eventually arrived at Mount Horeb, which is another name for Mount Sinai. Mount Sinai, we all know, is where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. Elijah stood at sacred ground; a place where his ancestors had already once been touched by God.

By the time time Elijah arrives at Mount Horeb, he is experiencing prophetic burnout. God called him to be a prophet, but his ministry was not an easy one. He now feels alone and isolated. He thinks that he is a failure as a prophet. He feels inadequate and unworthy. He fears for his life; he is exhausted. What modern society would now diagnose as depression or anxiety have completely taken over Elijah. The demands of ministry – and of life! – are great and he does not feel like he has the strength keep living his life.

“It is enough; now O LORD take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors,” Elijah pleads with God. I cannot do this anymore; please just make it end right now.

I think we have all been there. Even if we have never pleaded with God the way that Elijah did, we have certainly all experienced burnout and subsequent meltdowns. We have all felt feelings of failure, depression, despair, fear, inadequacy, unworthiness, exhaustion and isolation. We can relate to Elijah. Yes, Elijah experienced these feelings because he was a prophet, a minister of God, but we all experience these feelings in our everyday lives.

Then [Elijah] lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.

In his moment of desperation and despair, Elijah was touched by God.

Again, I ask – what would we look like if we made a constant effort to be touched by God; to feel the warmth of God’s love move deep within us and give our bodies and a gentle glow? What would we feel like if we opened ourselves up to God’s touch every single day of our lives?

This passage has me thinking a lot about prayer. Last week we looked at the passage in Exodus where the Israelites cried out for food in the wilderness and God answered their prayers and provided manna from heaven. We talked about the ways that we can be active participants in prayer; that we can make a difference in our lives and in the lives of others. But the Elijah’s prayers seem more desperate, more intimate and more relational with God. He threw himself down on the ground and pleaded with God. Elijah was at a point where he needed help beyond his human capacity. His prayers seem to be serving as a way not only to allow himself to be transformed by God, but also as a way to be touched by God.

What would we look like if we made a constant effort to be touched by God?

I came across a description of prayer this week written by the late Father Frank J. Houdek, Jesuit priest and author. I would like to read it together this morning.

Prayer is a gift from God. It does not create God’s presence or make God any more loving or available. It simply helps one to become aware of the various creative ways that God is already present and active in one’s life. It consists not so much on what we do, but how much we allow God to do, to act in and through us, to “gift” us. In short, prayer is an awareness of God’s constant and loving presence and action. Using this definition, prayer can appear to be very risky and powerful, a mysterious challenge that always asks us to transcend ourselves. It is a profound call and personal invitation to growth and fidelity, to transformation and freedom, to becoming a new creation – that, a new person in God. It involves giving God the power to possess us while allowing ourselves the freedom to enter more generously into His divine presence.

Prayer has been called a radical response to life. It is a growing interaction with one’s own life, an interaction that is a response, because the God of life takes the initiative and sustains the reality of the prayer relationship. During this time one is invited only to be receptive, to respond to the movements that occur in and through life. It is not merely a matter of saying prayers but rather an openness to God in every way. Prayer is God’s revelation in the joys, pains, moods, and day-to-day ordinary events of life. All this and mores forms the “stuff” and substance of prayer. No part of our faith life, our experience, or our vision excludes or escapes the loving presence of God.

Prayer, therefore, is not just a part of life, but all of life. It is not a part of our thoughts, emotions, images, feelings, memories, actions, and reactions; it is all of them. To pray is to think and to feel and to live constantly in response to God. One must let God be in life and experience. This does not imply that one cannot take the time to pray and be alone with God. It only means that prayer should in no way be divorced from life. Everything in one’s life is part of God’s concern for us. God is not indifferent to any part of our lives.

Prayer heightens and deepens the importance of letting God love us as we are. We need not prove anything to God; we could not do so, even if was it needed. We cannot coerce, negotiate, or purchase the love of God. It already exists, for God is love. All we need to do is to be open and available to the undeserved and unreserved love that God has for us. It makes no sense to compare one’s personal prayer with the prayer of someone else. Perhaps some value may come in hearing others speak of their prayer, but we each pray as no one else does. Rather, what is needed is nurturing and relishing the wonderful uniqueness of one’s own gift of prayer.

We have been given a gift. Prayer is our gift from God. Every single day we have the ability to be touched by God, to be loved by God, to feel God’s holy and awesome presence in our lives. To soak up God’s presence and feel our skin glow. To bathe and bask in God’s love and feel it warm our whole bodies and fuel us on our journeys through life. We will look different, we will feel different and we will act different. If we open ourselves up in prayer others will know that we have been changed by God’s touch.

What would we look like if we made a constant effort to be touched by God?

I think it’s time to find out.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

Hiding In Caves

Today has been crazy!  We had a church dinner (unfortunately it was raining so I left my camera inside!) which was an absolute blast.  After dinner Bruce and I ran some errands and then ran over to the church.  This week is Vacation Bible School and Bruce volunteered to teach the bible story portion!

Our Church School Director has been in all week with volunteers decorating and the space looks great!  They are doing underwater stories this year.

I think the kids are going to have a great time!

Here is today’s sermon … As usual, audio is here!

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1 Kings 19:9-18

Hiding In Caves

A couple of weeks ago we were in the first book of Kings – like we are this morning – and we talked about how unstable the nation of Israel was at that point in their journey. As a nation, they were moving into a united monarchy, to be governed by a more defined leadership of Kings, as opposed to a more fluid influence of prophets and other religious figures. My sermon was called “Strong Servants, Weak Servanthood” – and I talked about how King Solomon allowed himself to be weak in front of God so that God could help Solomon be strong in his leadership.

The transition to the united monarchy was a very, very shaky one and by the time we get to this morning’s passage, the stable leadership that we were sort of seeing with King Solomon was falling to the wayside and the Kingdom of Israel had been divided into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah.

So we once again have a mess on our hands in Israel. And Elijah – the main character in this morning’s passage – was not necessarily helping the situation.

Here was part of the problem. Elijah worshipped one God, like it was stated in the 10 Commandments. That God was referred to in this part of the Old Testament as Yahweh. There were people, however, that worshipped Baal. Baal was another God; a different God.

And as I am sure you can imagine, Yahweh worshippers were not happy. After all, Yahweh had given Moses the 10 Commandments and they clearly stated, “I am the LORD your God … You shall have no other Gods before me.”

And yet there were people worshipping Baal.

Elijah had a great solution for dealing with the people with whom he disagreed with: he killed them. But it did not end there. After Elijah killed several prophets and worshippers of Baal, another worshipper of Baal – Queen Jezebel – sent Elijah a message saying that she was going to kill Elijah and Elijah, distraught over the divisions between the Yahweh worshippers and the Baal worshippers and fearing for his life, ran away and hid in a cave.

And that brings us to this morning’s scripture lesson.

Cheerful, right?

Let’s recap: Essentially we have two different groups worshipping two different religious Gods. Both groups were mad at the other group for each other’s opposing religious beliefs, both groups were upset with one another about their opposing religious beliefs and their solution was just to kill one another.

And this is why preachers hate preaching from the Old Testament! This is why Sunday School teachers hate teaching from the Old Testament! It is violent, it is graphic and it is raw. But it is real. It is very, very real.

For me, the interesting thing about this passage is not the peculiarities of the worshippers of Yahweh versus the worshippers of Baal. Rather, it is the fact that after it had all fallen apart, after Elijah had acted violently out of religious passion and frustration, after Elijah had been threatened by Queen Jezebel and after Elijah felt that there was nothing left to do but to run away and to hide in a cave – God was still with Elijah; God still spoke calmly and softly to Elijah; and God revealed himself to Elijah.

Every now and then, things fall apart in our lives. We get sick, our lives get busy, we feel anxious, we are consumed by grief or we stumble into an unsettling conflict. And when that happens sometimes I think that our natural intuition as human beings is – like Elijah – to run away and to hide in a cave. We do not want to face the hard times because they are just that – hard. We do not like conflict, we do not like messy emotional messes and we do not like to admit our own weaknesses.

When you are going through a difficult season in your life, it is so much easier to run away and to hide in a cave than to admit that you need help. It is so much easier to run away and hide in a cave than it is to ever ask for that help. It is so much easier to run away and hide in a cave and hope and pray that the difficult season that you are experiencing is just going to blow over than to brave the storm from the outside.

But here is the thing – God is present no matter how far we may run to hide. It does not matter how scared we may be at any point in our lives, God is with us. It does not matter how far we want to hide from life, from our family, from our friends, from the people who love and support us and want to help us so badly. God is with us. God is with us always.

Elijah was scared and frustrated and ran away from a life that was so overwhelming to him and sought shelter in a faraway cave, but God still found him.

And when we try to run away from our problems, from our insecurities, from our overwhelming schedules, from our illnesses, from our fears, from our frustrations and from the differences that we think divide us from one another, God will find us. God is with us. God is with us always.

I have talked before about how I preach from the Revised Common Lectionary, a resource that brings preachers and their congregations through the bible by highlighting a Psalm, an Old Testament passage, a Gospel reading and an Epistle every week. This week’s Epistle is a favorite of mine. Paul wrote to the church in Rome:
For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’

I love that last part, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’

It is easy for us to use our feet as tools in which to hide; to run from the things that we are afraid of, from the insecurities that hold us back, from the pain and the grief that we face every day and from the illnesses that are making us weak. But what if, instead, we used our feet as tools in which to bring the good news to those we meet along our journey that God is with us, that God is with us always?

But what if, instead, we used our feet as tools in which to bring the good news to those we meet along our journey that God is with us, that God is with us always?

There is a lot that we can take away from this passage from 1 Kings. It is very busy and multifaceted, it is full of a volatile history of fear and division and can be extremely difficult to understand. But I think that on a very basic level this passage shows us a scared, upset and distraught man who tried to hide – and found God along the way.

When you are scared, when you are frustrated, when you are sick, when you are grieving, when you are divided from your neighbors and when you are confused, I pray that you find God in your journey. And I pray that along your journey you find the strength within yourself to use your feet to bring the good news to those around you.

Amen.

Weak Servants, Strong Servanthood

Whoa … It has been an absolutely crazy day.  I have a lot to say right now, but my brain isn’t functioning.  So here is my sermon (and if you listen to it, ignore the fact that I was so tongue-tied today!) …

***

1 Kings 3:5-12
Romans 8:26-39

Weak Servants, Strong Servanthood

I want to start off this morning’s sermon by thanking everyone for joining me for worship this morning. I was working on my sermon this past Friday, the heat index was a stifling 107 degrees Fahrenheit and it occurred to me that most people could probably find a cooler activity to partake in on a Sunday morning than sitting in an un-air conditioned sanctuary.

So thank you for being here – and I promise not to be long-winded. Which, to be quite honest, may prove to be difficult because the passage that we just read from in the first book of King is kind of peculiar.

Let me set the stage for you. We are in the Old Testament, the nation of Israel has been in crisis – floods, wars and exiles – and now is entering a time of significant social transformation.

Have you all heard of the Albert Einstein quote that, “Insanity [is] doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”? Well, Israel was trying something drastically different: They were going from a people of the land, a people of covenant and a people with religious reverence to God – who they called Yahweh – to a period of kingship.

So take yourself back – we are approximately in the year 961 BCE. The era of the kingship – or the United Monarchy as it was called – really started around the year 1020 BCE with the reign of King Saul. Saul’s reign was, what my Old Testament professor referred to as, a “shaky transitional rule” – not the greatest start to Israel’s kingship. In fact, the chapter on Saul in one of my Old Testament books is called, “Saul: The Threat, the Promise, and the Tragedy of Kingship.”

But King David came along in the year 1000 BCE after Saul died and had a much more stable rule, he really put the word “United” in “United Monarchy”. David’s chapter was called, “David: The Man After God’s Own Heart.” David died in 961 BCE and his son – Solomon – took the throne. Solomon’s chapter was titled, “Solomon: Empire and Fracture” – and you can read about the beginning of his reign at beginning of the first book of Kings.

The most peculiar part of this passage is Solomon himself. Immediately, upon taking the throne, Solomon emerges as a violent character. One of my theological guides to the Old Testament says the following about the beginning of Solomon’s reign:
When David names Solomon as his successor and dies, Solomon consolidates his power with a ruthless purge of his opposition. He has his half brother and rival Adonijah killed, along with his influential supporters, including David’s general, Joab. David’s priest Abiathar is banished.

So in very simple terms, we just had the following happen: King David had a solid, unifying reign. Right before he died, he named his son Solomon to be his successor.
And when Solomon rose to the throne, he consolidated his power by killing and/or banishing any of his rivals and their supporters.

Not a great start to his reign.

That being said, by the time we get to this morning’s passage, just one verse later, we are seeing a completely different side of Solomon. God appeared to Solomon in a dream and asked what God should give to him and Solomon first showed great appreciation for all that God gave to Solomon’s father, King David. “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father, David,” said Solomon, “because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart towards you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today.”

Then Solomon continues his response to God by showing humility in asking for what he wanted and needed. “Although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted.” Part of me wonders if Solomon took the throne after his father died, acted out in this initial state of violence to claim some sort of authority because he thought, “well, how hard could this be?” and then immediately became overwhelmed by all that there was to do.

Have you ever done that? Have you ever taken on a task that you thought would be really easy and that you thought you had complete under control and then – after diving in headfirst – realized you were completely overwhelmed? Have you ever gone looking for perfection and ended up receiving a large batch of humility? It happens to me all the time.

What I love so much about this passage is what happens after Solomon saw how great of a people, how numerous a number of people, he has been chosen to lead. He doesn’t charge forward with more violence, he doesn’t try to lead on his own and he doesn’t allow his arrogance and overconfidence to lead Israel. Rather, he asks God for guidance. “Give your servant therefore,” said Solomon, “an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”

Solomon does not ask to be the perfect leader, he does not ask for God to get the people of Israel together, he does not ask for God to work everything out for him on the ground. He asks God for an understanding mind and for the ability to discern what is right. He is humble as leader in front of God in that one moment so that his leadership can be strong in the years to come. He allows himself to be weak as a servant in order to have a strong servanthood.

There is something about our society that makes us think that we have to be perfect. Diet campaigns promise quick results, photoshopped models make consumers think they need to have flawless features, new computer and social networking programs are designed daily to supposedly make our lives our easier and the speed of production and expected productivity gets faster and faster every day. There is something in the media and in our culture and even in our churches that tells us that we have to quickly get bigger, faster and better.

And yet – this plea to God from King Solomon shows us that we are allowed to be weak, that we are allowed to have imperfections and that perfection should not even be the goal. This plea to God from King Solomon shows us that we should walk humbly, that we should embrace our weaknesses and we should ask God every day to give us strength.

The passage just gets better after this. “Is pleased the Lord,” the scripture says, “that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, ‘Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word.’”

God wants to be let into our lives. God wants us to be humble and ask for guidance in our lives, in our work, in our families, in our friendships, in our churches, in our communities and in our leadership. It pleases God. And God is good to us when we open up that door in our lives.

A few years ago, I was at General Synod, the biennial national meeting of the United Church of Christ and I was sitting in a meeting about a resolution that was going to come before the delegates the next day. The resolution was about depleted uranium in weapons, something equally over my head, and yet at one point an argument erupted in the room and the debate was getting heated. And the moderator calmly brought the room to order and paused for a prayer. By the time she said “Amen,” the anxiety level in the room had dropped. Because in those moments of prayer we asked God to enter into our conversation and to help us discern; because in those moments of prayer, we remembered that the work we are doing as a church needs to have more to do with God than it does with us; and because in those moments of prayer, God was present. It was in that moment that we paused long enough to realize that we did not have to have the answers. It was in that moment that we paused long enough to realize that we did not have to reconcile this resolution on our own. It was in that moment that we realized that it was okay to admit to God our shortcomings and ask for strength and guidance.

It is okay to be a weak servant. Being a weak servant does not mean that you will have a weak servanthood. In fact, based on how God responded to Solomon, I think that being a weak servant, being humble and admitting imperfection only makes our servanthood – as a whole – stronger.

I paired this passage from First Kings this morning with this week’s epistle lectionary text from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, the Book of Romans, chapter eight, verses 26 through 39. I’m not going to go in depth into this passage, but I am going to highlight the beginning of it for you once again, after hearing my sermon and thinking about what Solomon did after beginning his reign. Paul said:
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs to deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness.”

So I said that the passage from Kings was peculiar. Solomon jumped onto the throne with violence and then paused with humility to ask God for help. And if it ended there, it would be a great story to tell. Unfortunately, Solomon was not that humble throughout the entirety of his reign. His violent side came back. But I do not think that his inconsistency as a character that we read about, as a King and as a person should diminish what he did that day in his dream. Because none of us will have that one moment where we humble ourselves, seek out God’s help and then never once fall back.

Life is a journey, one where we wake up every day and have to decide how we want to live our lives. Some days we will be humble and seemingly do all the right things and God will be right there. But there will be days when we forge ahead on our own. And so on those days we need to pause, take a deep breath and invite God in once again. It is not about finding perfection and setting up camp there; it is about allowing ourselves to be weak along the journey.

But like Paul said, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” Amen.