Monday, November 18, 2013

We Honor God By Trusting Him

We Honor God by Trusting Him
I Kings 17:7-24, II Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19

What does it mean to trust in God?  If surveyed, we would all say that we trust God, even if we all would also admit there are days we struggle and our belief is clouded.  We still trust God, I mean, you’re here, aren’t you?  What is trust?  How does trust in God show itself?

Is trust simply a mystery, beyond our ability to explain?  Or is trust displayed when we are responsible?  There are two phrases that have become recognizable:
Let Go and Let God.
God helps those who help themselves.
Neither of these phrases are in the Bible.  There are times and scenarios in which both of these statements make sense.  But there are also times when they ring hollow. Ultimately, they are conventional wisdom, not everlasting truth.

Is Trust solely a mystery?  Is it something that we don’t know how to define and describe?  Do we throw ourselves out into the wind, without calculation and preparation and creative effort in our lives? 

Or do we show our trust in God by living responsibly? 

The answer is that both of these elements are true.  The Scriptures today are a combination of our Sunday School story from I Kings, and the lectionary readings.  Kings reminds us of the mystery of trust.  Thessalonians reminds us to be faithful to God by being responsible.  And the Gospel lesson encourages us to trust in the midst of a conflicted world.

Ultimately, trust brings us closer to God and we honor God by our trust.

God uses our obedience to bring the story of redemption to people.
This is a story where trust certainly has a mysterious element to it. 

Baal was the idol that had swept over the nation of Israel.  Baal was the god of rain.  And in the desert that isn’t the worst god to hitch your horse to, unless of course, the first option was that you served the one true God of the universe.  Then it seems rather foolish to forsake all powerful God for local and limited god.  Israel had left their devotion to the Lord in favor of false gods.  The covenant that God had made with Israel described the consequences of forsaking the Lord.  In God’s patience and mercy, he sends a prophet.

Elijah goes to the king and his first act is to tell the king Ahab and his wife Jezabel that the idol that they had adopted for the people was now going to be embarrassed.  “there will not be any rain until the True Lord says so.  Not this year, and not next.  And maybe not the year after.    Let’s see what you have, Baal, god of storm.

God provides for Elijah as he endures the drought.  And when his food supply comes to an end, he travels to Zarephath.  Why?  Because God had commanded a widow to provide the prophet with food.  This woman lives in the heart of Baal worship. 

The widow was commanded by God…we often look at the story through Elijah’s eyes….but obedience is interesting in this way.  God was at work in the life of this unnamed woman, and her child. He was present in the midst of their suffering.  He was present even if circumstances clouded the eyes of faith.  

I think we can relate to Elijah in the sense that sometimes, it might feel that what God is asking you to do is impossible.  Obey?  It doesn’t make sense, we rationalize to ourselves.  But at the same time God is calling me to obedience, he is also calling the person that I will be serving or interacting with.   Now obedience is a tricky story, for sometimes we obey, and sometimes the other person in the equation obeys, and sometimes we don’t obey, or we obey with delay, or the other person doesn’t obey.  But if God is working in your heart, calling you to trust, he is also working in the other person.  Maybe you are being called to reconcile with someone, to forgive them, to share a creative idea, to pursue a dream, to work together on a project.  If God is working within you, and you are listening, he is also working with all the partners needed to accomplish the task at hand.

Elijah basically asks someone with a young child who is starving to death to give up their last meal.  It is ludicrous idea, unless God had first commanded the woman that she was to give up her last meal.  She listened, and God rewarded her.  God was working in the lives of Elijah and the woman.

Elijah claims the authority of the true God in a land of idols.  He endures the consequences he had prophesied about.  He goes into the heart of the idolatry stronghold.  He is commanded to ask for food from someone who needs it more.  God provides for the woman and her child.  It seems that everything is going to be great.  God has brought us through so much, and he has been good.

And then the child gets sick. 

Was this all a game to you prophet?  Does your God think this is funny?

Elijah is beside himself.  What will this action do to the name of God and to Elijah’s valiant cause?  Elijah does the only thing he can do in these types of situations.  He cries out to the Lord.  And the Lord heard him.  Out of this desperate situation, the woman’s faith is rewarded.  She had believed when all those around her had turned to other gods.  And in the heat of the moment, she could have turned.  But even when the story was most desperate, most difficult, most elusive, she kept the faith. 

The story about Elijah and the woman is a crazy story.  No one goes through that sort of thing nowadays, we reason.  But I’m not sure that is true.  No, we may not go through this exact situation, but we endure difficult situations in which things seem impossible.  Sometimes, trust is only a cry, or only a mystery that we embrace. 

There are also times when we feel that we are trusting God by being responsible. 

The Apostle Paul went to great lengths so that his audience would listen to his message.  This included working a regular job and using his forums to proclaim good news.  As an apostle, he was in the right to receive help.  But he chose to be a tentmaker, literally, and preach the gospel whenever possible.  Paul felt there was much work to be done, and so time was of the essence.  He totally relied on the grace of God, as several other passages testify, but he also felt that trusting in God meant being responsible, exploring appropriate avenues for his message, doing what built a good name among the people he was with.  Faith worked. 

Paul gives a warning against idleness.  Idleness, according to Websters, “is to run disconnected so that power is not used for useful work”.  The image of a car running idle is helpful here.  One isn’t moving toward destination when remaining idle.  In fact, you are just using precious resources.  In doing so, you have disconnected yourself from the engine’s power.  This image is good for us as Christians.  When we do not engage in the Lord’s message, and the work that God calls us to, the Spirit’s power is not used for God’s work.  Paul reminds us to never tire in doing what is right.  Sometimes faith is hard to describe.  And sometimes we express faith by doing what God wants.

And so we all live between these two ideas, that trust is found in mysterious situations, and also in the day to day realities of life.  We display trust when we pray, and when we work, when we wonder out loud and loudly proclaim the God we serve.   A life of trust brings honor to God.  Jesus reminded his disciples of this reality.

Today’s lesson is a difficult passage.  It reminds us that we don’t trust within a fishbowl.  We trust in the midst of a messy world.  This passage provides commands from the Lord to his disciples, a picture of what we must endure in this life, and the promises made by the Lord for those who endure.

What are the Lord’s commands in this passage?
--Watch out that you are not deceived. (v8)
--Make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves (v14)

The story of the woman reminds us that there are idols in this world.  They may even be tempting to believe.  Yet their false promises, inability to answer prayer and the disconnect they create in one’s worldview are important to guard against.  We are to watch out and not let ourselves be deceived. 

By knowing our Lord, we can also enter into trust that, when difficult days come, we do not have to scramble for truth and meaning.  We build our lives upon it now, so that when difficulty comes, we have an appropriate foundation to build ourselves upon.

What will the disciples have to endure?
--wars and revolutions
--earthquakes, famines and pestilences
--fearful events and signs from heaven
--bearing witness to those who do not believe
--family conflict and hatred
--possible death

What are the promises made by Jesus in this reading?
Not a hair of your head will perish.
By standing firm you will gain life.

This passage raises questions for us with how to interpret the seemingly endless amount of tragedy that comes from violence and natural disaster.  The theological reality is that with finite knowledge we cannot piece together all the stories of life.  Personally, with the advent of the internet, knowledge is more elusive.  Yet, Is it the same lie as the enlightenment, of social gospel of 100 years ago:  the myth of progress.   Jesus reminds us that the world is too complicated, and only God will sort it out.  For only God can sort it out.  We are to be people of trust.  Trust allows both mystery and responsibility to grow within us, and our church and our neighborhoods.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Walk Freely: God Deserves Our Devotion

Walk Freely:  God Deserves Our Full Devotion                 10/27/13
I Kings 11:1-13, Galatians 5:1-15, Mark 12:13-17

We have been preparing for The Church Has Left the Building experience with a series of sermons called Walk the Talk:  Walk forward, walk far, walk fearlessly, walk faithfully and today, walk freely. 

In honor being Free, and walking freely, I’ll introduce a mainstream quote for each reading of Scripture.  And to start us off, we reference Mr. George Orwell, who said "freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear."

As a preacher, I like that quote.  Hopefully, you’ll want to hear the message today.  You have the right to check out.  But I have the right to check in.

The readings today are very interesting because two have backgrounds hard for us to comprehend, and the third is one we all feel too familiar with.  700 wives and their temples, circumcision and taxes.

I take back the Orwell quote.  This is interesting stuff!

Freedom, despite its use, overuse and abuse, is a fascinating word.  We especially like this word as American citizens.

Americans love their freedoms, and politically these freedoms are found in rights.  In the early years of our nation’s founding, the Bill of Rights, those first 10 amendments to the constitution emerge.  The first one is fascinating and defines several of the most dearly loved rights…

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,
or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech,
or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to
petition the Government for a redress of grievances

One of the interesting discussions of the period was the debate as to whether there should be any amendments at all.  Was the Constitution, in its original wording, sufficient to describe the role of government?   One theory was that government only had jurisdiction over what was directly addressed in the Constitution.  For others, it was important to specify what freedoms American citizens had.  Obviously, this side won the debate.

While America had painfully obvious expressions of oppression throughout its history, by and large, we were a story of freedom.  America has been one of the more successful stories of political freedom in the history of the world.  And freedom has never left our vocabulary.  Even today, American understanding of freedom is a fascinating topic.
          --freedom, rights should also go hand in hand with
          --what is the current perception of what freedom really is
--are current citizens experiencing freedom, has government
          taken away liberties
But as interesting as this is, we need to put American Freedom to the side, and consider today, Biblical Freedom.

Freedom, according to Webster’s Dictionary is the quality or state of being free. 
a :  the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action
b :  liberation from  slavery or restraint or from the power of another
c :  the quality or state of being exempt or released usually from something onerous

This definition and its expressions fits quite well within how the Bible describes freedom.  Ultimately, our freedom is found in the Lord.

I Kings
So today, our first question is what does 700 wives, and their religious temples, have to do with freedom?  A quote from Voltaire will start us off in the right direction:  "It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere.

At the beginning of the today’s passage, there was a word we might have glossed over:  King Solomon, however, loved.”  However is a contrast word.  It speaks to something that was previously written in the story.   So let me throw out to you a number far greater than 700.  The number is
1,080,000,000 dollars is the value, in today’s monetary standards, of the gold which was brought in by Solomon to his kingdom every year during the height of his power.  I Kings Chapter 10 is a fascinating chapter regarding the economic diversity found in Solomon’s day.  The chapter speaks of dignitaries bringing valuable gifts with them when they would come for summit with Solomon.  There were Fine woods and natural resources brought in by ship and merchant.  There was a schedule of ships returning to port with commodities from throughout the world:  “once every three years, they returned carrying gold, silver and ivory, and apes and baboons.”  Valuable chariots and thousands of horses were imported.   What an amazingly abundant time for this nation!

Yet Solomon carries this abundance too far.  He marries 700 women, most of whom were political alliances.  He also forgets the stories from long ago in which Israel was not to intermarry with her enemies.  They would bring false gods.  And they did.  Solomon strays after these gods, and in order to please his host of wives, builds them temples for their worship.  The gold that God had blessed the nation with was used to worship idols.

Solomon, in previous stories, had been visited by Almighty God.  He had been given promises by God.  Following these promises would lead to life and liberty.  Ignoring these promises led to peril and the fall of his Father’s dynasty.  With the polygamy and the idolatry came the anger of God.  Solomon had turned away from the Lord. He left a knowledge of God and choose to revere the wrong things.  He was no longer walking in liberty.  God had deserved Solomon’s full devotion.  God had become, to Solomon, one of many.  There is no biblical testimony that God is not one of many.

Jean-Paul Sartre writes that "Freedom is what you do with what's been done to you".

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.
This is one of those passages of Scripture that we hear and say, “well, sure, of course”.  But then we consider if it has become true in our lives.  Yes, we agree that Christ has set us free.  We believe the theology.  But why?  For what?  For freedom.  If this is true, are we living it?  Christ has set me free.  Am I experiencing freedom?

Just as the idea of 700 wives might sound foreign to us (pun intended), so circumcision seems to be a strange way in our world to show that you are indeed one of God’s chosen people.   There are modern medical purposes for circumcision, but in the ancient story of Abraham, God makes a covenant, and circumcision will be the sign that you are in the family of God.

But what happened when the Gentiles, who did not circumcise themselves, start to believe in Jesus?  Did they too have to get circumcised?  Paul says no, but others inside and outside the church said yes.  And so Paul brings his readers back to a simple thought.  Christ has made us free.  We are to walk freely.  This includes the way we understand God’s law.  

Accepting the Jewish premise that you had to be circumcised to show you were a believer did not sit well with Paul, who followed Jewish law impeccably.  Paul seems to say that if you are going to follow alternative plans to heaven rather than simply believing in Jesus, then you should go all in.  You can’t have “Jesus AND…”.  If Jesus set us free, he didn’t need any other help in the matter.  One should not add things in an effort to find salvation.  If you are going the sign of the covenant way, then you have to follow the whole covenant.  All of it.  And if you are going the Jesus way, then you have to believe in him solely, for your whole soul.

Parents have taught their children at young ages not to run into the street.   There might even be harrowing experiences where children have to be taught in a stern voice that they have come too close to the street.  But at some point, the child learns and understands why it is important to keep on the sidewalk.  This is kind of how it works with the Laws of the Hebrew Scripture.  Once you learn not to run in the street, you enter a new level of freedom, you can function without the simple rule.  It has become part of you.  Now, it doesn’t mean that this rule no longer has any value, or that it is now wrong, just that it has been replaced by the maturity to find adventure by using the sidewalk.  Christ has fulfilled the law.  Only he was able to do that.  Now, one can either attempt to follow the law perfectly, to the letter, or one can serve The ONE who fulfilled the law.  The new law, the only thing that counts, Paul writes, is “faith expressing itself through love”. 
“The entire law is summed up in single command, love your neighbor as yourself

This idea is really a liberating one.  We serve Christ.  He set us free.  We can be free.  We don’t have to earn his love.  We can live well because it makes God happy.  We can live well because it fulfills us.  We can live well because the spirit of the law is to love thy neighbor.  But we don’t have to follow law in order to earn God’s love.  We simply cannot.  Paul writes, Brothers and sisters, you were called to be free.  It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.  Walk freely.

Let me repeat the quote I picked for Galatians:  Freedom is what you do with what's been done to you.

 Robert McNamera writes that "Coercion simply captures man, but freedom captivates him."

700 wives and circumcision as a sign of God’s acceptance seem foreign to us.  Unfortunately, taxes do not.   In the Gospel story, two competing religious groups join forces to attempt to trap Jesus.  The Herodians would have felt that it was a virtuous duty to pay taxes.  The Pharisees did not.  They both felt this was the perfect opportunity to corner Jesus and cool down this movement of interest in him and his teachings.  Do you hear the trappings?  “We know teacher that you are a man of integrity”.  “You don’t give too much attention and power to people”, “You teach about God in accordance with what is true and right” (snicker, snicker)   Jesus, what about taxes?  What’s the word?

In a stroke of genius, Jesus corrects both parties, who figured there was no way out of their question.  Yes, you pay taxes.  No, you don’t give Rome allegiance.  What a liberating comment. 

The McNamara quote is appropriate.  Coercion captures.  Freedom captivates.  How much more interesting is freedom.  Yes, you can have philosophical debates about taxes and leadership and justice.  But it is by far better to run after freedom.  We find our selves, our very souls, when we run after the right type of freedom, Christ’s freedom.  He takes us out of our cornered philosophies and opens wide the road to liberty.  Our freedom in Christ is a life long pursuit.  And the more we have of it, the more we want of it.  Because that is the what God intended, and that is what Jesus accomplished.  It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.


God deserves our devotion.  As Americans, we are quick to express our rights, especially when we feel they are violated or suppressed.  What about God?  Does God deserve something?  Yes, our devotion.  We devote ourselves to God by walking freely.  It is who God made us to be, it is what Christ accomplished, it is what the Holy Spirit is urging us toward.  Walk Freely:  God deserves our devotion.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Walk Faithfully: God Values Wisdom

Walk Faithfully:  God Values Wisdom                               10/20/13
I Kings 4:29-34, II Timothy 1:3-12, Mark 8:27-38

Most of life is watching three words dance and fight, work and play together.  What are these words?  Past. Present. Future.

We are who we are because of the past.  We are motivated to change because of the future.  And we do all of this stuff of life in what is called, the present.  Today.  Today is really the only place we live.

There are a few times in every persons life in which today becomes a crossroads.  Today becomes a check in point where you can see the past and the future clearly.   Perhaps it is your first day at a job, when you see why you studied so hard, and where all the opportunities of a career are before you.  Maybe it is your retirement, when your faithful work is now rewarded with time to pursue what interests you.  Maybe your child is ready to graduate, and your presence and instruction will have do for now and you can return to other roles in your life.

In our gospel story, there was a literal place which provided a clear view of the past and future, called Caesarea Philippi.  It was an elevated location, in which one could view Galilee behind you and Jerusalem in the distance.  It also has become a symbolic place in which we see the ministry of Jesus Christ more clearly.  Galilee is where the people saw Jesus at work, Jesus the teacher and healer.  Who do men say I am?  Jesus asked his disciples.  The disciples offered the water cooler answers.  But with Jerusalem in mind, Jesus digs deeper.  Who do you say I am?  Peter answers correctly:  You are the Christ.

Despite this correct answer, Jesus warns the disciples not to tell anyone the answer.  This is a text that has caused confusion for most readers.  We get last week’s lesson.  Jesus heals a man, and then tells him to go tell everyone how the Lord had been good to him.  We understand that.  But why would Jesus tell the disciples of all people to keep quiet on the matter.

The common answer lies in the Roman Empire, with its powerful ability to crush any illegal religion, or any religious teacher who would detract from Rome’s self-perception of power.  It would seem that Jesus still had work to do.  But perhaps there was something else.  Mark Williamson, a commentator, writes that the disciples didn’t understand Jesus.  They had a wrong impression of him, and Jesus did not want that misinformation spread any further. 

At Caesarea Philippi, the disciples looked back at the Jesus they had come to know.  And they looked forward by acknowledging he was the Christ.  And this idea that they had no idea of what that meant has some merit.  Jesus sits the disciples down to teach them, speaking very plainly.  Imagine the moment.  How plainly?  I am going to suffer, be rejected by the religious establishment, be killed, and then I will rise again.  Imagine being a disciple hearing Jesus speaking.  This speech is mouth dropping, stunned look, smoke rising from an overheated brain type of speech.  One of the disciples in particular, Peter---you may remember him as the one who five minutes before was the first to call Jesus the Messiah—yes him, Peter expresses what  he is thinking about as Jesus is plainly teaching…
--Jesus, are you sure?
--Jesus, you don’ know that for certain
--Jesus, you are scaring us
--Jesus, we feel uncomfortable listening to this
--Jesus, let’s just return to the blessed are the peacemakers lesson.  That is more palatable.

Peter takes Jesus aside and tells him how inappropriate it is to talk of such things.  You are the leader.  What will people think of you?  How will people look at us?  The Scripture says that Peter rebukes Jesus.  How dare you say such things!

The problem in all of this is that Peter forgot who he was.  He was a disciple.  He was a follower.  Taking upon him the safe and convention thoughts of the world, Peter ventured out as the teacher, attempting to correct Jesus, or at least keep him manageable.  The one who called Jesus Messiah had no idea what this meant.

When Jesus comes to a similar conclusion, he “turned and looked at the disciples, he rebuked Peter, get behind me Satan!”  You aren’t thinking of God, you have in you the things of men. 

Jesus had come to do good things in Galilee.  He came to teach and inspire, to work and to heal, to love and to bless.  But he also came for Jerusalem’s work.  He came to be a sacrifice, he came to die for sins, he came to bring back sons and daughters to a right relationship with God.  Long ago, God the Father spoke in plural form and said, Let us make humankind in our image.  Sin had tarnished that image and separated sons and daughters from their God and their God given image.  Jesus was here to make it right.  And to make it right, Jesus would walk faithfully before God in whatever needed to be done.  Not my will, but Thy will be done.

In this clear moment, when past and future were in full view, Jesus invited us to see wisdom mysteriously.  Jesus invited us to be faithful to him.  If anyone would come after Jesus, let them take up their cross, deny themselves and follow Jesus.
If you want to save your life, you’ll lose it.
If you want to gain the whole world, you’ll lose your soul.
If you are ashamed of Jesus, he’ll be ashamed of you.
Whoever loses one’s life for Jesus and for the gospel, will save it.

These are some of the most difficult words in the gospel.  And everything in our culture attempts to sabotage these words, or at least make them manageable.  Peter’s attitude is alive and well in our world…the follower rebukes the leader.  The disciple manages God.  The worshipper tells their Maker how things will be.  Mark Williamson writes:  “Disciples are not to guide, protect or possess Jesus, they are to follow him.”  Most of us have had a moment or been in a place where we understood who Jesus is, where we could see the past and the future clearly in light of the living Christ.  I want you to remember that moment, or that time, as today, we heed the call to follow faithfully.

I want to read a poem written by a prisoner some 70 years ago.

(the poem, read in its entirety, was Who Am I?  by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  The last line reads, "Who am I?  they mock me, these lonely questions of mine.  Whoever I am, thou knowest O Lord, I am thine")

 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who was imprisoned for his faith.  His faith, and some minor detail about a failed assassination plot on Hitler.  But mostly his faith.  Dietrich is looking back, wondering about an uncertain future, all within the confines of today.  In the midst of great difficulty, hope was his foundation.  All that he was, all his questions of identity are answered…Who am I?  I am thine.  I belong to God.  And God has been faithful to me.   Therefore, carrying all that I am, I walk faithfully, following Jesus.

This is exactly what the Apostle Paul did two thousand years ago.  In writing to a young pastor named Timothy, who was probably 35 or 40 years old, Paul tells Timothy to fan the flame of faith.  Paul is writing from prison.  He is writing from a spot in which he can see both his past and his future very clearly.  He knew the One in whom he believed.  The God whom his forefather’s had served.  The One he invited Lois to know.  The One he had invited Eunice to know.  The One he was persuaded now lived in Timothy.   He knew the One who was faithful to him.  He knew the One who had saved him, not because of anything he had done, but because of God’s own purpose and grace.

Paul also saw the future.  He saw this gospel destroying death and bringing life and immortality to light.  He saw the spirit of power, love and self-discipline transforming people’s lives.  He saw God calling us into a holy life.  He saw a God whose future was as long as his past.  He saw that all that he gave to God was guarded by God, entrusted to God for that great day of victory.  He knew the One in whom he had believed would be seen.  God was faithful, yesterday, today and forever.

Our Sunday School theme for today was “God Values Wisdom”.  Value is the important word here.  We often consider God as commanding an action or conduct.  Have you ever thought of God as valuing something?  God assigning worth to an idea, trait or way of life?  What does God think is important?  What has great worth to God?  One of the answers is wisdom.  Last week, in a dream sequence, Solomon gets to ask God for one thing, and he asks for wisdom.  This week, we see the dream come true.  God is faithful to his promise to Solomon.  God gives to Solomon a breadth of understanding of a wide variety of topics:  the Cedars of Lebanon and the hyssop that would grow in the cracks of the wall, the animals and the birds, the reptiles and the fish.  Solomon was given proverbs, that is, wise sayings and over a 1000 songs.  People from all over the world would come and hear Solomon.  Kings would send their subjects to go and listen to Solomon.  It sounds like all the makings of a prototype of a university, with the King lecturing on the world and how it functioned.  Solomon was more wise than those of the East, than the great Egyptian empire, than Ethan the Ezrahite, Heman, Calco and Darda the sons of Mahol.  Individuals that time has distanced us from knowing.  Solomon’s wisdom was famous throughout the earth. 

Solomon serves to remind us that if we are willing to lose ourselves, we just might find our self.  If we are willing to look at what God values, we might find life.  If we are to see what is important to God, we might start to understand who we are.  I learn who I am when I see who Jesus is.  Who am I, we ask with a similar complexity that Bonhoeffer wrote:  We belong to God.

And because in Christ we can see the past and the future, and because we belong to God today, we are called to be faithful.   On November 3rd, we are not going to worship God in this sanctuary.  There are several opportunities to worship God outside these walls with fellow brothers and sisters from this congregation, and 8 other NJ congregations.  It is an experience called:  the Church Has Left the Building.   Some projects are listed in the Narthex.  I am asking you to sign up for one that interests you, to participate that day, and to experience what God has for you.  There are many Scriptures that invite God’s people to proclaim good news to the world.  We want to take one Sunday a year to learn that for ourselves. 

The Queen of Sheba went to Solomon.  She was in search of wisdom, and she heard that Solomon was the wisest. She traveled from the ends of the earth to make her way to his teaching.  This idea makes sense to us:  go to the best.  Jesus declared this about himself:  Now one greater than Solomon is here.  We know the One whom we have believed.  We have seen the Lord in our past, and we see him in our future.  Today we are faithful to the Lord.

Walk Fearlessly: God Gives Us Wisdom

Walk Fearlessly:  God Gives Us Wisdom                          10/13/13
I Kings 2:1-4, I Kings 3:1-28, Mark 5:1-20

I’d like for us to take a moment to prepare for this sermon by publicly acknowledging an important reality:

God will take care of the pigs. 

Most of my theology about animals comes from two main sources:  the Scripture and the Disney movie title:  All Dogs Go to Heaven.  And I would assume that all pigs go to heaven.  Humans, I’m not so sure about.   Though it is our Lord who says, when comparing birds and humans:  How much more valuable are you than they?

God will take care of the pigs.  By all accounts, they seem to get a raw deal in this story.  Yet, if we stumble over the pigs, we become like the people in the story.  And that is a real spiritual problem for us to avoid.  What happened when the townspeople are confronted with the pigs and the healed man?  They plead with Jesus to leave.

And you know what?  Jesus did just that. 

I wonder if in the following days and months and years, if the people understood what they did that day.  In considering the financial loss of the pigs, in the perceived threat that Jesus was to their way of life and their personal comfort, in the audacity that Jesus displayed in healing someone who threatened them, did they remember that they had asked Jesus to leave.  Or was that lost on them?

May we guard ourselves against asking Jesus to leave us.  Please leave our region.  Please leave me alone.  Please leave my family, my business, my school, my town.  Leave us to what we know, to what is before us that we can taste and see and touch and smell.

Today’s theme is to Walk Fearlessly.  How do we do that?  Most of us are so afraid.  I am shocked by how timid I am sometimes.  Where is our spirit of adventure?  Where is our confidence?  Where are our principles that guide us through the storms of life?  Where is our duty to challenge the system when it overreaches?  Where did all of that go?   And maybe, more importantly, how do we get it back? 

It was the angels that always greeted people in the stories of Scripture with the phrase:  Do not be afraid.  Jesus often told his disciples, do not be afraid.  The witness from heaven to earth is to not be afraid.  We are, by all accounts of Scripture, to be fearless.  The only thing that Scripture commands us to fear is God. 
“the Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”  But even the fear of God draws you closer to God, not further away.  A fear of God invites you into the majesty of holiness, not a hiding spot in a dark alley.

If we are to be fearless, we must foster fearlessness through God’s wisdom.  Wisdom is the ability and skill to apply knowledge appropriately in the situations we face.  Wisdom is birthed in a knowledge of God, and his ways, and his commands, and his understanding of the world and all that is in it. Wisdom learned and lived, allows a proper fearlessness to life.

As I wrote this last paragraph, the fire siren went off.  A few moments later, the emergency vehicles loudly warned fellow drivers to let them through.  In the moments of danger, it is understandable to have a little fear, though the people of faith often look back and provide testimony that God brought them through their darkest moments.  When we talk about being fearless, we are talking about a way of life, a philosophy, to consider God as bigger and better than anything else in this world.  All power and authority belongs to God, and God alone.  And to give too much power to any other human proves unhealthy.

But before we return to this fascinating story in the gospel, let’s look at the story of Solomon, who is widely referenced as the wisest person that ever lived.

David, for all of his sins and shortcomings, is described in the Bible as someone who loved God with all of his heart.  And as he is dying, one of the final things he does is give a charge to his son Solomon.  The word charge is an interesting word.  In wedding ceremonies, I give a charge to the couple, final words in the ceremony that send them out into the world as newly pronounced husband and wife.  Historically, in church circles, a charge was given by a bishop to one of the ministers under his jurisdiction.  Charges are also given at the time of ordination.  A charge is also, in catholic circles, a parish, that is a local space from which worshippers gather and ministry occurs.  And as David is dying, he gives Solomon a charge.  Solomon is not being ordained, nor is he becoming a pastor, and unfortunately, Solomon will marry too many times.  But this charge from Father to Son is really about remembering what is most important, and helping Solomon understand God’s promise to his Father, and by extension, to him.

David says as much:  “So be strong, show yourself a man and observe what the Lord your God requires.”
“that the LORD may keep his promise to me” David’s family line would continue in rule because of their obedience to God.

After his Father’s death, I’m sure Solomon remembered this moment.  I’m sure it stayed with him over time.

Solomon did not always live in obedience to God.  In our second story, he is using marriage for political purposes, and offering sacrifices at the high places, an idolatrous action.  But early in the midst of this new ruler’s tenure, there comes a dream.

And in this dream, God says to Solomon, ask for whatever you want me to give you.

Ask for whatever you want me to give you.

Don’t worry, God knows the popular answers.
Lord, help me live a long, long time.
Lord, I could really use a lot more money.
I wouldn’t mind if you relocated (fill in blank) to another continent, or at least, out of my path.

God knows the popular answers.  And God seeks the right answer.

Solomon, in this dream, arrives at the right answer.  You have kept your promise to my father, and I am the king.  But there are a few problems:  I am new at this job.  I might be under-qualified.  I’m not quite sure I know what to do.  There is a lot of responsibility on this job description.   So many people:  all around, too many to count.  I think Solomon is at a crossroads…perhaps fear is crouching in the corner of his dream, ready to pounce.

Lord, give me a discerning hear to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.

God had given the charge.  And Solomon, in deep sleep and meaningful dream, receives it.

We won’t unpack today the famous story that follows, where, under the threat of cutting the child in two, Solomon identifies the real mother.  It is one of those classic stories, so simple and profound.  Discernment had come to Solomon.  In that moment, he stares injustice in the eyes and announces what was wise and good for his people. Fearless. The dream had come true.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I have two types of dreams…sweet dreams, and nightmares.  Granted, I’ve learned to keep the late night hoagies to a minimum and avoid possible physiological reasons why nightmares might come.   But once in a while, I will wake up from a nightmare.  What a surreal experience.   The power of sweating because a dream seemed so real!

In the Gospel story, we are brought face to face with a nightmare.   Imagine living in a quiet neighborhood, going to bed each night in relative peace.  Yet as you lie in bed, you hear his voice in the distance.  Howling.  Screeching. A haunted, terrorized voice that cried out loudly as he cut himself with stones.  He was a tortured soul.  In fact, legion lived within him. 

All the neighbors knew him.  They had tried many times, all unsuccessful, to chain him hand and foot.  But this man always broke the chains off.  He was the strongest man around, no one was able to control him.  And so night, after night, as you lied in your bed, you would hear the cries in the distance.  If they could have done something, no doubt they would have.  But there weren’t able to. 

It seems that this man didn’t want to be around the neighbors, staying to himself, living in the graveyard, living among the tombs.  In some allegorical way, he was already dead.
Yet one day, the man saw that Jesus was entering his town, and he went to meet him.

This man was still far off when he saw Jesus.  Upon spotting him, he ran.  He ran and ran and ran until he came to Jesus.  Put yourself in that situation.  Imagine you are the only one on a street and you see someone running from the Stockton Inn in your direction. They are getting closer, and closer.  What is going to happen?—you wonder to yourself as your heart rate increases.  As the man gets close to Jesus, he falls to his knees and shouts at the top of his lungs.
What do you want from me Son of God?  Swear to me that you won’t torture me.

I find the order of the story interesting.  We read that the man shouted these things, because Jesus had ordered the evil spirit to come out of the man.  As the man was running, was Jesus talking to the demons?  Was Jesus looking into this man’s soul and charging the demons to leave this tortured man as the man charged toward him?  For he runs to Jesus, falls down, and screams.  It seems that Jesus had already talked to him.  You and I would run for cover in this crazy scenario, yet Jesus looks deep within a human soul ready to command the demons.  Fearless.  In this spiritual battle, the demons begged Jesus.

What a crazy story.  Who are we most like in this story? 

I don’t think that this man, in his demonic state, kept Jesus up at night.  I think the people who asked him to leave kept Jesus up at night.

So maybe there is more to this man than meets the eye.  Was he not more valuable than the birds and the pigs?  Jesus apparently thinks so.  He heals him.  When the townspeople come to see the aftermath of this encounter, they find the tortured man sane and dressed. 

Upon seeing this man, and seeing what was sacrificed, they ask Jesus to leave.  No, strike that, they beg Jesus to leave.  There are two fear-filled groups in this story:  the legion of demons, and the townspeople. Both groups beg Jesus.  There is one man who ran toward the solution when he saw it:  the crazy guy.  I mean, the fearless guy.

Once again, who are we most like in this story?

You see, before we met Christ, we too had our demons.  We too found ourselves isolated and alone.  We too, engaged in self-destructive habits.  Granted, maybe a surface look yields a less horrifying story than the demon possessed man.  But nonetheless, our story is better because we have Jesus in it.  We have been healed.  We have been made right. 

The healed man went up to Jesus and begged.  He begged to go with Jesus, but Jesus redirected him back to his family.  Jesus gave him a charge.  Jesus gave him a parish, not as a pastor, but a place filled with people who needed to hear the story.  Go home and tell how much the Lord has done for you and how he has had mercy on you.

The man did as Jesus commanded.  Who are we most like in this story?

Generally speaking, we are to go out into our world and speak of the Lord’s healing in our lives.  The places we work, play, eat, relate.  The neighbors we know, enjoy, compete against and are annoyed by.  We are to go to our homes and tell our family about our healing found in Jesus.  Like the demon possessed man, there is a local space in which we can serve.   Let us consider ourselves charged by the Lord.

I would like to close this sermon with the reminder that we will be taking part in a one day activity called “The Church Has Left the Building”.  It is a one time a year event in which we worship God outside this room.  It will therefore serve as a spiritual teaching tool for us, reminding us to worship God in all corners of the parish we have been charged with.   For the remaining weeks in October, I’d like you to sign up for an activity the morning of November 3rd.  There are two activities led by Stockton folk.  I’ve also printed out sign up sheets of projects that are led by other local congregations.  I’d suggest you look at the opportunities and sense which one will help you become more fearless, and grow wisdom within you.  I invite you to participate in that activity on November 3rd with a willing heart, going and live/speak about how the Lord has been kind to you.

When the healed man told his story, “all the people were amazed”.  Hopefully, we will see this happen as well. 
Walk Fearlessly.  God has given us wisdom.