Come, Ye Thankful People, Come

There are several hymns that remind me of my Dad, but perhaps “Come Ye Thankful People, Come” portrays him and his faith most completely.  It is traditionally sung at Thanksgiving time, just as the harvest is being completed.  Some years, the men went back to the field after the Thanksgiving feast, but most years, it was complete, a relief, a time to rest and reflect on the miracle of Creation. 

“Come, ye thankful people, come”.  We always knew to Whom thanks should be given.  Never a doubt, especially as the clunky gold ears tumbled into the elevator from the wagon.

“All is safely gathered in”—safely, as in no one was injured and safely as in the crop was stored securely for the winter.

“All the world is God’s own field.” “Come to God’s own temple come”—that all of creation was God’s temple was embedded in us from the first time we breathed farm air. 

“First the blade, then the ear, then the full corn shall appear”  a part of creation that seldom failed, not to be taken for granted, but to be praised and cherished.  A kernel was never put in the ground but that it was expected to sprout, grow, yield.  

“Lord of harvest, grant that we wholesome grain and pure may be…

all offenses purges away…forever purified…”  a prayer for ourselves…

“Even so, Lord, quickly come, to thy final harvest home.”  On how many lips is that bravely whispered in this time of pandemic? To know that we will be gathered up, “in thy garner to abide” gives us Christians great comfort when we fear for the winter, when we fear for lack of whatever we need.  

The singing of this hymn brings also a harvest of memories, of generations of saints gathered around a table.  Whenever I hosted the big family Thanksgiving dinner, every person was forced to gather around the piano.  I passed out the hymnals, accompanied by a few groans from the younger ones and a few tears from the older ones. The hymnals were an assortment of Lutheran, Methodist, Congregational, Presbyterian, so the words didn’t always match, but we sang all the verses and in that moment, everyone knew a depth of thankfulness that transcended whatever lists had once been written in grade school classrooms and prayed in the most formal of worship services. 

We won’t be singing together this year.  But the hymn is still easy to find on Youtube.  May you be moved to a thankfulness that covers more than a roof over your head and an absence of illness.  May you be moved to be thankful for all of Creation, from every grain of granite to every breathing baby, from every slimy cell to every wrinkled face, from the familiar to the weird. May you find peace in a thankfulness reserved for special occasions.  

A New Covenant

Jeremiah 36:1-8 New Revised Standard Version

36 In the fourth year of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Take a scroll and write on it all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel and Judah and all the nations, from the day I spoke to you, from the days of Josiah until today. It may be that when the house of Judah hears of all the disasters that I intend to do to them, all of them may turn from their evil ways, so that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin.

Then Jeremiah called Baruch son of Neriah, and Baruch wrote on a scroll at Jeremiah’s dictation all the words of the Lord that he had spoken to him. And Jeremiah ordered Baruch, saying, “I am prevented from entering the house of the Lord; so you go yourself, and on a fast day in the hearing of the people in the Lord’s house you shall read the words of the Lord from the scroll that you have written at my dictation. You shall read them also in the hearing of all the people of Judah who come up from their towns. It may be that their plea will come before the Lord, and that all of them will turn from their evil ways, for great is the anger and wrath that the Lord has pronounced against this people.” And Baruch son of Neriah did all that the prophet Jeremiah ordered him about reading from the scroll the words of the Lord in the Lord’s house.

Jeremiah 36:21-23 New Revised Standard Version

21 Then the king sent Jehudi to get the scroll, and he took it from the chamber of Elishama the secretary; and Jehudi read it to the king and all the officials who stood beside the king. 22 Now the king was sitting in his winter apartment (it was the ninth month), and there was a fire burning in the brazier before him. 23 As Jehudi read three or four columns, the king would cut them off with a penknife and throw them into the fire in the brazier, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire that was in the brazier.

Jeremiah 36:27-28 New Revised Standard Version

27 Now, after the king had burned the scroll with the words that Baruch wrote at Jeremiah’s dictation, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: 28 Take another scroll and write on it all the former words that were in the first scroll, which King Jehoiakim of Judah has burned.

Jeremiah 31:31-34 New Revised Standard Version

31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

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God and Jeremiah were on speaking terms.  I don’t know if they were on first name terms.

Did you know God has a first name?  I learned it from a hymn: Andy walks with me and he talks with me….. (And he walks with me and he talks with me -“In the Garden.”)

God had been speaking to Jeremiah for at least twenty-three years, the length of the reign of King Jehoiakim. 

Let’s review the story.

God had spent the last twenty-some years warning the people that they  were not acting in a manner that reflected their faithfulness to God. God’s messenger during this time had been Jeremiah.  In today’s text, God takes advantage of a religious holiday. The people will be the temple to observe the holiday so this was a good time to remind them—once more—of what God expected from them.  Jeremiah dictated to his scribe, Baruch, all the warnings, all the pleas, all the reminders God had spoken thorough Jeremiah. This writing was not a list of pleasant reminiscences. Take a scroll and write on it all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel and Judah and all the nations, from the day I spoke to you, from the days of Josiah until today.  All the words AGAINST Israel and Judah. All the charges. All the misdemeanors. All the treachery. Al the infidelity. 

Baruch took the scroll to the temple and read it, very publicly very deliberately. To get the whole picture, you should really read the entire chapter. Let me fill you in.  When the scribes in the temple listened to Baruch’s reading, they understood how dangerous the words were, so they met with Bruch in private to hear the words again. They realized the king had to hear these words.  But first, they warned Jeremiah and Baruch to go in to hiding, which they did.

So, picture King Jehoiakim sitting comfortably in front of his fireplace.  One of his staff now had the scroll.  Let’s pretend it’s a book.  Jehudi, perhaps Jehoiakim’s Chief of Staff, read from the book.  Every so often, Jehoiakim asked for the book, tore out the pages Jehudi had read, and threw them in the fireplace.  Jehoiakim’s disdain for God was apparent and impudent.

Fortunately, Jeremiah was able to dictate the contents of the burned scroll to Baruch one more time and that is the basis for the book of Jeremiah we read today.

Whenever I read a text, I wonder if history has repeated itself.  Of course, my American citizen mind went right to government politics.  I picture President Trump sitting in front of one of the beautiful White House fireplaces, burning the Constitution.  Ridiculous, of course. But then, in a rare flash of humility, I realized that I am not any better than King Jehoiakim. 

I may not rip pages out of the Bible and throw them in my gas fireplace.  But I certainly act in ways that show my own disdain for God’s word. 

God’s word for me, for you, reveals, all above all else, God’s love for us and God’s longing for a relationship with me. Too often, my action’s reveal conforming to the world, buying into the disharmony, joining in voices that destroy rather than build up.  

God sent those words to the people of Judah so that they would repent.  How often have I argued with God that my sins are justified, that God should give me a break.  Instead, I am called to repent.

Will this repentance result in punishment?  No. God made a covenant with the people of Judah.

31: 31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

That new covenant is Jesus.  That new covenant has redeemed us from punishment and received us in love. 

In this last Sunday of the Christian year, let us reflect and repent. For my own part, I need to examine my motives and my agenda, why I act and speak in the ways that I do.  May God give me the clarity of mind to understand what is in my heart, to repent, and to accept the forgiveness of the New Covenant established  for me through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Amen.

In THAT Year Isaiah 6:1-13

6 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3 And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” 

9 And he said, “Go and say to this people:

‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’

10  Make the mind of this people dull,
    and stop their ears,
    and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
    and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
    and turn and be healed.”

11  Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said:
“Until cities lie waste
    without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
    and the land is utterly desolate;

12  until the Lord sends everyone far away,
    and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.

13  Even if a tenth part remain in it,
    it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
    whose stump remains standing
    when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump.

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In the year that King Uzziah died, 

In the year that John Kennedy was shot,

In the year that Donald Trump was elected,

In the year that…….

Notice that the writer of Isaiah begins the chapter not with a statement about a person, place or thing, but with a chronological marker: In the year—that unique year—-that King Uzziah died.  

We are living in a unique year, are we not?

If 2020 were a potato chip, it would be flavored with orange juice and toothpaste.

If 2020 were a cereal, it would be bunch of cigarette butts floating in milk. 

If 2020 were an ice cream truck, it would be selling liver and onions. 

If 2020 were a drink, it would be a colonoscopy prep.

Isaiah lived in a year that made history—-the year King Uzziah died.  Uzziah had been king for 45 years. The transition to a new ruler after 45 years is cause for political instability. In the case of Israel, it is also mixed up with religious stability.  At this time in Israelite history, there was no separation of church and state. The king was the leader not only of the government but was also responsible for the relationship between the people and God.  As far as God was concerned, the relationship was nearly broken.

As always, God does not abandon God’s people. God found a helper in Isaiah.

Verses 1-8 of this chapter are beautiful, colorful, imaginative and famous. They inspired a hymn by Dan Schulte, “Here I Am,” that has become a favorite among thousands of Christians.  The text assigned for today stops at Verse 8, but to understand the gravity of the call, we must read to the end of the chapter.

And he said, “Go and say to this people:

‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’

10  Make the mind of this people dull,
    and stop their ears,
    and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
    and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
    and turn and be healed.”

Imagine trying to deliver a message when no one will listen.  Imagine telling your child, “Listen to me, but do what you want.” Imagine teaching math without expecting anyone to be able to multiply 2 x 2.   Imagine being given the task to make people ignore you, even as you implore them to wear masks, wash their hands, and stay home. That was the kind of life Isaiah signed up for.

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” 

Here I am; send me!  I have no doubt that anytime anyone sings this hymn, their hearts are full of commitment and love and they are ready to sign up for the building of the Kingdom. We are steeped in the language of devotion. Love God, love your neighbor.  Follow. Serve. In moments of worship, it is easy to be caught up in the glory of God. With God, all things are possible, right?

But when the rubber hits the road, when the rock hits the window, when the virus fells the healthy, “Here I am” becomes “Where can I hide?”

Try to share Isaiah’s vision in your own mind:

the hem of [God’s] robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.[of incense?]

Imagine your senses being overwhelmed—the sound of heavenly music, the sight of all those wings, the fragrance of incense. 

Notice that Isaiah’s first response is one of confession.  Not fear. Not praise. Not confusion.  Confession.  

“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips;

God responds by purifying him.

your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”

God has done the same for us, not by placing a burning coal on our lips, but by sacrificing Godself in the form of Jesus.

So, we don’t have the excuse that we aren’t good enough to serve God. In the year of 2020, in this time of fear and confusion, God’s love remains the same. God’s expectations of us remain the same.  That does not mean we are wrong to be afraid or angry or confused in this year of pandemic and politics.  Perhaps our greatest sin is turning to human “common sense” and putting Jesus in the Sunday parlor that’s only used for company, saving Him for special visits when we’re dressed in our best and we’ve prepared a tempting dessert of hymns and prayers.  

Jesus won’t hide in a safe place. Jesus walks among the wounded, among the ill, among the bitter. Jesus walks among the insane—those insane with grief, insane with anger, insane with loss, insane with betrayal. And Jesus doesn’t walk alone—-listen to our first hymn today—Will You Come and Follow Me?—and find the answer in your heart.  Jesus doesn’t lead us into temptation; Jesus leads us into danger, into chaos, into conflict.

Sometimes  Christians like to quote Ephesians 6: 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. That sounds like military action, like we’re looking for a fight.  Before you slide your ammunition into the chamber, read the next few verses: 

14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Am I exaggerating?  Do some Christians really want a fight, followed by blood and bandages?  I’ll let you answer that.

The point is we are armed not with bullet-proof kevlar vests, but with truth, peace, faith, salvation, and the Word. How do we use those “weapons?” We know.  Or do we?

One of the tragedies of our political climate is the loss of friendships. One of the tragedies of the pandemic is the loss of community.  How do we use truth peace, faith, salvation, the Word to restore what is lost?  Love.  The kind of love we admire in 1 Corinthians: Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.

Here I am.  Here I am, God, ready to speak your Word, ready to build your Kingdom, walking not ahead of You, but following You. Let me imagine what you are trying to do every time I try to heal, to love, to bring peace.  Let me see myself in your image, rather than seeing you in the image of what I want. Here I am, loving as much as I humanly can, nurtured in your great Love.  Amen.

Repent.

 Jonah 1:1-17, 3:1-10 (4:1-11) New Revised Standard Version

 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.

But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. The captain came and said to him, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.”

The sailors said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.

The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10 Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

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First of all, here is a link to a really, really, really good sermon on this text: https://melissabanesevier.wordpress.com/2018/01/15/nineveh-that-hole-place/  The author is Melissa Bane Sevier; she wrote this sermon in 2018.

I suggest you read it before you read mine. 

We each have a little bit of Jonah in us. We all can think of a time when we resisted doing what was necessary, what was right or kind or moral.  As imperfect humans, we are easily tempted to do what is easiest or what appeals to our selfish nature or what makes us accepted by our friends and family.

I was known to be a contrary child. If I was told to do one thing, I naturally did the other. Truth be told, I can’t remember any specific incidents where I was contrary, but I do know that my mother wasn’t the only one who applied that label to me. 

That’s part of being a child, though, isn’t it? Discovering the power of “No!” Once toddlers learn the power of that word, they find numerous ways to wield that power. Put away your toys. No!  Take your nap. No! Eat your potatoes.  No!  Hug your grandma.  No!  Share with your sister. No!  

Which Biblical character is better known than Jonah for saying “No!”?  Fortunately for toddlers, the consequences do not include being swallowed by a giant fish.  (How many baths would that kid need before they smelled normal again?)  We know that this is a parable, that Jonah was not literally swallowed by a fish, but something, something tremendous, happened that made him change his mind.

Let us review.

God told Jonah to go to Nineveh to warn the people of the city to repent.

Jonah refused because, in Jonah’s opinion, Nineveh did not deserve God’s grace.

Jonah ran away.

Jonah was forced to rethink his position.

Jonah repented.

Jonah followed orders, went to undeserving Nineveh and preached.

Contrary to Jonah’s expectations, the people of Nineveh repented.

Nineveh was saved.

Have you ever wanted someone to fail?  Didn’t we all want someone to fail when we voted for someone to succeed? Have we ever wanted a sports team to fail?  Every game, every match.  Have we ever wanted someone to fail on the job or in a relationship? Hard to believe, isn’t it? And yet….

Nineveh is in Assyria. Assyria is the enemy; Assyria has crushed Israel. If Assyria were a candidate, it’s the person you’d never, ever vote for. You don’t want Nineveh/Biden/Trump to win. You don’t want to give Nineveh/Biden/Trump a chance to have any thing good happen to them. You don’t want to give Nineveh/Biden/Trump credit for anything good.  You can’t imagine anything good about Nineveh/Biden/Trump. There is no hope for Nineveh/Biden/Trump to change their evil ways. Nineveh/Biden/Trump deserve no mercy.

And yet God had mercy on Nineveh and God will have mercy on Donald Trump and Joe Biden and all the people who voted for them.

We all have our Ninevehs. We all know people or issues or places we can’t abide. The very mention of the person or issue or place provokes rancor in our hearts.  So?  So, we all need to repent.

We like to throw around the semantical Christian flag of “Love your neighbor” as if it were the easiest thing in the world to love everybody. But it’s hard to love your neighbor when you are afraid of your neighbor, when you see your neighbor as misinformed, as bullheaded, as clueless, as poisoned.  

Jesus also said, “Repent.”

From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17)

I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. (Luke 5:32)

Jesus even used Jonah and Nineveh as an example!

The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. (Matthew 12:41)

This election is different. After most elections, haven’t we all settled down and pretty much ignored our elected officials?  This election is different.

I want to share with you what I wrote to a friend last night. I had finished watching the speeches, the fireworks, the commentary on television.  My heart was troubled, so I wrote: 

My friends are celebrating, excited.  Me, not so much.  There is so much to not celebrate.  My friends and family who supported Trump et al certainly are not celebrating. They are stunned, they are grieving.  I cannot celebrate in front of them.  My heart grieves for them, just as it would have grieved for my Biden-supporting friends if he had lost. I wonder if my Trump friends would have grieved for me or if they would have gloated and thrown Trump’s victory in my face. Never have the reactions to a presidential election been more divided, more polarized, more exaggerated.

So, the only result of this election is sustained division and deep grief.  And to my mind this celebration is superficial, in-your-face anti-Trump as much as it is pro-Biden.  

Maybe in a week, a month, a year, we’ll learn what we truly have to celebrate. Right now, it seems inappropriate. Right now, the flag wavers are celebrating their own status: being connected to the person with the most votes.  I hope in the months to come we have more important things to celebrate, like rights restored, the environment protected, racism and pandemic addressed in ways that build up rather than tear down.

One fear: will the Biden term be like the Weimar Republic—an attempt to repair a nation that failed in the wake of economic and nationalistic odds?

So, while while half of us are celebrating out of a sense of relief as much as victory, how will our Trumpist brothers and sisters recalculate their lives, their emotions, their relationships?  How will they adjust to a sea change that goes against what they have been celebrating for the last four years?  

I hope we realize that this is not about conservative vs. liberal, Republican vs. Democrat. This is about fear vs. fear. We are divided not by what we believe or support, but by what we fear.  I fear for the refugee, for the impoverished,  for the powerless; others fear the loss of privilege, the loss of ownership, the loss of independence, the loss of pride.

Perhaps our newly elected Republicans  and Democrats will work toward reconciliation; on the other hand, they may seek to strengthen their own positions by playing to the division that helped to elect them. May our prayers for fairness be heard and implemented. 

  I know you that you expect me to “keep politics out of the pulpit.” Politics is people, how people make decisions, how people decide who thinks like they do, how people choose the people who will elevate their wishes, who will demand what is most prudent for the general population.

Politics is people and Jesus cares only about people. Jesus cares about how and where and why people live. Jesus cares about the well-being of people. Jesus is not some ghostly inspiration that floats in and out. Jesus was incarnated in the form of a human being so that he could experience what we feel, what we fight, what we need.  Jesus was physical.  Jesus ate food; and he understood the importance of food. The feeding of the five thousand is not just a nice miracle. It shows how clearly Jesus understood the importance of a full belly. Nobody is going to listen if they’re thinking about food. Jesus cared about health—how many people did he heal? Jesus knows we are not at our best when we hurt, when we burn, when we itch.

Jesus wants us to be at our best. Why? He loves us. Additionally, Jesus gave us the task of building his Kingdom. It’s hard to work up to your potential when you are hungry, when you are hurting, when a nagging headache or heartache fills your mind and slows you down. 

God vs. Jonah.  God wanted to save the people of Nineveh. Jonah wanted the people of Nineveh to be destroyed.  Jonah said, No!  God said, Yes! After some soul-searching, Jonah repented.  Nineveh repented. Nineveh was saved.

I challenge you to name your Nineveh and start walking. Your Nineveh is not the people who tick you off, not the people who appall you, not the people who oppose you. Your Nineveh is in your heart. God knows your heart, we like to say.  So, God knows what you must do. Repent.  Walk toward your Nineveh, repent of your own impulse to separate yourself from those who think differently, act differently from you. Walk toward your own Nineveh and open your heart to the mercy of God. Amen.

Who is Good Enough?

I Kings 17: 1-24

17 And then this happened: Elijah the Tishbite, from among the settlers of Gilead, confronted Ahab: “As surely as God lives, the God of Israel before whom I stand in obedient service, the next years are going to see a total drought—not a drop of dew or rain unless I say otherwise.”

2-4 God then told Elijah, “Get out of here, and fast. Head east and hide out at the Kerith Ravine on the other side of the Jordan River. You can drink fresh water from the brook; I’ve ordered the ravens to feed you.”

5-6 Elijah obeyed God’s orders. He went and camped in the Kerith canyon on the other side of the Jordan. And sure enough, ravens brought him his meals, both breakfast and supper, and he drank from the brook.

7-9 Eventually the brook dried up because of the drought. Then God spoke to him: “Get up and go to Zarephath in Sidon and live there. I’ve instructed a woman who lives there, a widow, to feed you.”

10-11 So he got up and went to Zarephath. As he came to the entrance of the village he met a woman, a widow, gathering firewood. He asked her, “Please, would you bring me a little water in a jug? I need a drink.” As she went to get it, he called out, “And while you’re at it, would you bring me something to eat?”

12 She said, “I swear, as surely as your God lives, I don’t have so much as a biscuit. I have a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a bottle; you found me scratching together just enough firewood to make a last meal for my son and me. After we eat it, we’ll die.”

13-14 Elijah said to her, “Don’t worry about a thing. Go ahead and do what you’ve said. But first make a small biscuit for me and bring it back here. Then go ahead and make a meal from what’s left for you and your son. This is the word of the God of Israel: ‘The jar of flour will not run out and the bottle of oil will not become empty before God sends rain on the land and ends this drought.’”

15-16 And she went right off and did it, did just as Elijah asked. And it turned out as he said—daily food for her and her family. The jar of meal didn’t run out and the bottle of oil didn’t become empty: God’s promise fulfilled to the letter, exactly as Elijah had delivered it!

17 Later on the woman’s son became sick. The sickness took a turn for the worse—and then he stopped breathing.

18 The woman said to Elijah, “Why did you ever show up here in the first place—a holy man barging in, exposing my sins, and killing my son?”

19-20 Elijah said, “Hand me your son.”

He then took him from her bosom, carried him up to the loft where he was staying, and laid him on his bed. Then he prayed, “O God, my God, why have you brought this terrible thing on this widow who has opened her home to me? Why have you killed her son?”

21-23 Three times he stretched himself out full-length on the boy, praying with all his might, “God, my God, put breath back into this boy’s body!” God listened to Elijah’s prayer and put breath back into his body—he was alive! Elijah picked the boy up, carried him downstairs from the loft, and gave him to his mother. “Here’s your son,” said Elijah, “alive!”

24 The woman said to Elijah, “I see it all now—you are a holy man. When you speak, God speaks—a true word!”

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Today’s text encompasses three stories about the amazing life of Elijah.

First, God sent a drought in response to King Ahab’s misguided worship practices.  He had married Jezebel, who worshiped Baal.  Through her influence and the weakness of the integrity of the Israelites, God had been neglected and no amount of warning from Elijah could right this wrong. God protected Elijah from Ahab’s retaliation by sending him into hiding. He was fed by ravens who brought him morsels of bread.

Next, God sent Elijah out of town, out of country, to Sidon, and to an unlikely rescuer: a widow.  Widows were by definition poor, so the new location didn’t seem very promising as far as survival went.

The third story is the death and recovery of the widow’s son.

Rather than choosing one of those three stories for our focus, I want you to think about this widow.

She has so many strikes against her. She is poor, reduced to starving.  She has a child for whom she can’t provide.  She is a woman, with no means to support herself.  And, politically, she is a foreigner—to Elijah.  

So God has chosen to save Elijah’s life by sending him to a starving, female, foreign person.  It makes no sense.  

How many times have we stumbled in our faith because it makes no sense? 

Paul wrote to the Corinthians about our weakness to cling to “common sense.”

21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Perhaps this is why there is division among Christians—because we like to pit our own wisdom against God’s wisdom. We use our own experience, our own sinful nature, to shield ourselves from God.  We weigh the wisdom of the world against the wisdom of God and choose according to what makes us comfortable.  We look around us and see not God but humans and we follow like sheep because we put our trust in what we can see.

Elijah must have questioned God any number of times. God did not give Elijah an easy life. His first assignment was to tell King Ahab to prepare for a drought.  Kings don’t like to hear bad news. As soon is the news was delivered, Elijah went into hiding, per God’s instructions.  For awhile, that hiding spot, near a stream of fresh water, was fine. Then the stream dried up.  What next?

Surely, Elijah was surprised when God sent him to a starving, female foreigner.  To put it in today’s vernacular, she was a loser. She had nothing to offer Elijah, nothing to suggest that she would save his life.  

Yet, she did.

The lesson I want us to consider today is that no one is beyond being a life saver, no one is beyond being a hero, no one is beyond providing what is most needed, even in the worst of times.

The widow was marginalized from her culture, her community and in the eyes of Elijah.

Whom do we marginalize?  Whom do we see as useless to the community?  That is a harsh question, but in your heart, you have surely sorted people into groups…by income level, by how they keep up their yard, by how their kids behave, by where they live, by how they vote, by how they dress, by what they do for fun.

The widow had been sorted out—for being female, for being widowed, for being poor. She did not choose to be female or widowed or poor. When you tell someone to make “better choices,” you belie an arrogance that ignores the lack of choices for that person. Yes, there are times when one has the luxury of a good choice over a bad, but often all the choices are harmful.

So, this woman was not a candidate for helping anyone, not even her own son. Yet, she saved Elijah’s life.  

As a teacher, I served all kinds of students.  It was easy for us to predict who among our students would succeed in the eyes of the world and who would not be worth much in a society that craved money and power. Time after time, I have been surprised. Time after time, students have risen far, far above my expectations. They have educated me about their careers, their interests, their families, and they have shared their perspective on a myriad of topics.  

This brings to mind another memory.  When I was serving as organist at a church, we decided to have a beef supper.  Because we were a small congregation, we needed help from everyone.  One gentleman in our congregation was rather rough and I was a little afraid of him.  I needed to assign someone to wash dishes, so I asked Dan if he would do that humble job.  I braced for some kind of negative feedback; instead, I got a grateful thank you.  He was delighted to be asked to participate.  It seems that in other congregations, he was ignored—as if he had nothing to contribute. That is one of the most important lessons of my life.  I learned that one, people want to be included, even when they don’t act like it, and two, I shouldn’t prejudge who wants to be included.  

Everyone has value.  One of my gripes is that people complain about immigrants but still want fresh fruits and vegetables in the grocery store every day of the week.  In my research, I discovered that when the jobs immigrants do, like cutting up pork chops, pulling onions, picking oranges, are offered to the local citizens, the locals either refuse to apply for the job or they don’t last more than a day.  Yet we want to close the borders. You might as well close the grocery store while you’re at it.  

Everyone has value. Even a widow with an empty cupboard. Even an old man who scares people.  Even a brown-skinned person who doesn’t belong here.  Even a student who never completes an assignment.  

I think we could all give examples of being surprised by the worth of someone.  I pray that we can stop being surprised and see the worth in everyone.  I pray that we can ask other people to be part of what ever good things we try to do.  I could go on and on.  But I’ll let you go on and on. I’ll let you look for help in unlikely places. I pray that you find joy in your discovery.

Amen.