Monday, May 26, 2014

A Normal Guy... Fed by Ravens

Before I get to today’s scripture, I want to read another one.  I want to start with James 5:17-18:  Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

As I was preparing for the last five weeks I will be preaching here, I wanted to have a theme; I didn’t want to just preach five stand-alone sermons that don’t really have anything to do with one another. I wanted to find something that speaks to us today, no matter what we are doing. But I also didn’t want to go to my favorite, “pet passages” if you will. So I ended up with one of my favorite heroes of the Bible. Sometimes we can get caught up in the “hero” thoughts, thinking that this person or that person is so spiritual or so powerful or so whateverful that I could never do anything like this. This is the reason that I chose to read the passage from James before reading about Elijah. Elijah was a man just like us. So keep that in mind as I read from 1 Kings 17:1-6

Now, Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord, the God of Israel lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.”

Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah: “Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan. You will drink from the brook, and I have ordered the ravens to feed you there.”

So he did what the Lord had told him. He went to the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan, and stayed there. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening and he drank from the brook.

Have you ever been told to do something that you didn’t really want to do? How did you respond? How about if you knew that God wanted you to do whatever it was that you were supposed to do? There was this guy, I’ll call him Bob, who was complaining. He complained to everybody who would listen, and I was the target of his complaints. I never visited him or his wife. The truth was, his complaints hurt. They hurt because I had visited both of them. They had both had health issues and I had visited each of them in the hospital, in the nursing home, and at home. In fact, I had visited the two of them more than anyone else in the church. Yet he kept complaining.

I was completely ready to write him off. But I knew that God wanted me to visit him. So I swallowed my pride and went over, half expecting to get complained at. But as it turned out, the visit went very well. He was happy for the visit and I was glad to have the complaining behind me.

In today’s scripture, we read about Elijah, how the word of God came to him. The Bible doesn’t give us much of an introduction other than his name and where he came from. Interestingly, his name, Elijah, means “My God is Yahweh” and Tishbe (as a word) means “captivity.” We know Elijah as a powerful prophet of God who stood up to the king, even in the face of death.

But the most important thing about Elijah was not his power or his reputation. Elijah’s most important characteristic was his obedience. You see, God never spelled out the whole scenario to Elijah. God only gave him the next step. When we first meet Elijah in this chapter, by some means, he has gained audience with the king. He gets to be the one to tell King Ahab what’s what. A pretty important person with a pretty important calling. I can only imagine what went through his head; maybe Ahab would listen and repent. Maybe the nation would be healed and saved from its enemies.

As an itinerate Methodist pastor, I can maybe relate to Elijah here; just as he might be getting comfortable in a new role, God tells him the next step, and it’s not a good one. “You’re in the palace now, but I want you to leave and go hide east of the Jordan. Your parsonage will be a ravine, and don’t even ask what the kitchen looks like.

At this point, Elijah can’t possibly know what the future is going to hold, only that it looks hard. So he is at a crossroad. And he chooses obedience.

Sometimes we find ourselves at a crossroad, where we know God is calling us to something, but maybe we find excuses not to do it. “It’s going to be hard,” we tell ourselves. Well, that might not be an excuse; it’s just a statement of reality. It will be hard. But nothing that is worthwhile is really all that easy. If you want to learn a skill, you have to work hard at it. If you want to be good at a sport, you have to work hard at it. If you want to raise good, godly children, it’s going to be hard work. And if you want to follow God’s commands, you can bet that it isn’t going to be easy. And God is frequently not going to give us the whole picture right at the beginning of the journey.

One difficult aspect of full obedience to God is that God doesn’t always do things the way we want God to do them. Elijah had an audience with the king. Then God tells him to flee, and the next thing we know, Elijah is hiding in a ravine. Does Elijah know what’s going to happen next? I doubt it. Yet he is obedient.

You might be thinking, “Yeah, Elijah can be obedient in this because he is one of the prophets. God speaks directly to him. He is one of those superior people…” But the Bible is clear that Elijah wasn’t anyone special. In fact, remember what James had to say about him: Elijah was a man just like us... James 5:17a

He was a man, just like us. And his obedience was simple. Not easy, but simple. I can’t imagine what it was like to wait in that ravine. But the reminder is clear: God’s timetable is not our timetable. Perhaps God brought Elijah there to save him from King Ahab’s wrath. Perhaps God brought him there to teach him patience. Most of us understand that patience is a good thing, even a Fruit of the Spirit, and we want to be patient, but God rarely just gives the gift of patience – usually God gives us the opportunity to practice being patient. We don’t like to wait; we want to be doing something productive. That’s just part of our culture.

As an aside, sub-Saharan Africa, which Zambia is a part of, is much more of a “being” culture than a “doing” culture, which means that concepts like “time” “productivity” have different meanings and values. Here, when we have a meeting that is supposed to start at 7:00, we arrive around 6:45 and chat for a while, and some of keep glancing at the clock, especially if everyone hasn’t arrived yet. At 7, the meeting is convened. But that’s not the way it is everywhere. In a “being” culture, if they said the meeting was to start at 7, it might mean that people will start heading for the meeting place at 7. And when they arrive, the meeting won’t start until everyone has sufficiently greeted one another. And by “greeted” I mean “have a full conversation about their family and everything else.” We get into the pattern of judging the gathering by how “productive” it was, but that’s just not the case everywhere.

I’m not sure what kind of culture Elijah was in, but one thing is for sure: he had a lot of “down” time. Non-productive time. And I wonder what he did with the time. Did he find a closer walk with God? We don’t have definitive evidence – the Bible doesn’t say this specifically – but I believe Elijah’s time in the ravine prepared him for what would come next. Elijah obviously had some kind of sway – otherwise how could he have gotten an audience with the king? He might have just stayed in his comfortable spot, enjoying his position and the extras that go along with it. But God had something else for him – something not very easy, not very fun, not very cushy, not at the king’s table, but hidden in a ravine, fed by ravens.

Maybe you have chosen your way based on comfort. You like where you are. You may not be all that effective for the kingdom, but it’s comfortable. But maybe God has something uncomfortable for you to do, something that will make a great impact for the kingdom, or even something that will prepare you to make a great impact for the kingdom.

And there is a huge problem with comfort. What is comfortable now might not be comfortable forever. Think of sitting in the most comfortable easy chair. You sit down and it envelops you, and you feel like you could sit there forever. Let’s make it even better – it’s so nice that you have a big screen TV and a refrigerator right next to you. You don’t even have to get out of the chair for anything. You even have a bedpan. So you get to sit and sit and sit. It’s the most comfortable seat ever. But if you sit there for too long, you will start to get bedsores. If you sit there even longer, your legs will atrophy. Eventually you could die. Just from sitting in a comfortable chair.

There is a difference in being comfortable and content, as Paul writes about in Philippians 4 (where he says he has learned the secret of being content in all circumstances). The secret is relying on God for everything! When you’re in the easy chair, you don’t need God for anything; you have everything you need right at your fingertips. I believe this is one of the biggest problems faced by American Christians right now; we are way too self-sufficient. We don’t need anyone else, and we don’t need God.

When we get into this situation, it is extremely difficult to trust in God for provision. But we’re in this situation more often than we would like to realize. If you find yourself in the situation of being so comfortable that you aren’t trusting in God to provide for you, that you don’t need to trust God for your daily bread, one easy remedy is to increase your giving. Give more to the church. Give to missionaries (if you don’t know any, I can give you some suggestions). Give to the Imagine No Malaria campaign. Sponsor a child. Pay for a scholarship. Pay for a Cub Scout to go to day camp.  Donate to help our mission team on their trip.

And don’t donate what’s left in your wallet.  Donate before you go out to eat. Donate before you buy yourself something nice. Pray over your money. Because God has so much for you if you decide to stop being so self-reliant.

I also wonder if God brought Elijah to the ravine to give him rest or, as some of us understand, to make him rest. I know I am guilty of going, going, going and then having no energy. There are times when God uses the situations we are in, or even gives us the situations we are in, to make us rest. To take the time our bodies and our spirits need. Did you notice that Elijah wasn’t told to go to the ravine Man Against Wild style? There’s nothing there about conquering the elements. It’s about allowing God to take care of him. We are so focused on doing all of the things that we do that sometimes we just need to stop. To rest. To enjoy Sabbath. Actually enjoy it.

The coolest thing about this passage about Elijah is simply that Elijah heard God’s word and obeyed. We don’t read about him arguing or bargaining with God. He doesn’t run away from God, like Jonah did. He doesn’t lay out a fleece like Gideon did. He simply obeys. While James says Elijah was a man just like us, I think what sets him apart is his obedience. While many of us either don’t listen to God or wait until God uses the Holy 2x4 to get our attention. Elijah heard God’s Word and obeyed. Where in your life could you stop and obey today?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Call

Exodus 3:1-6

1 Samuel 3:1-10

Isaiah 6:1-8

Jeremiah 1:4-10

I read you four call stories from the Bible: Moses, Samuel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. They are amazing stories. Moses already had an awesome start to life, being saved from death by his mother putting him in a basket in the reeds in the Nile, and he was saved by the Pharaoh’s daughter, of all people. But here he is, years later, toiling away in Midian, tending sheep, when God speaks to him through a burning bush.

Then there is Samuel, whose mother prayed fervently for a child, and when her child was born, she brought him into the sanctuary of the Lord to be raised there. Though the word of the Lord was rare in those times and people just weren’t having visions, God spoke to the boy Samuel in an audible voice.

Isaiah had an awesome vision in which God spoke to him, asking, “Whom shall I send?” and Isaiah answered, “Here I am, send me.”

And as for Jeremiah, we simply read that “the word of the Lord came to [him].” I’m not exactly sure what this means – if God spoke in an audible voice or if it was in a dream or an oracle or a vision or what, but what I do know is that God’s word came to him. I love this part: God knew Jeremiah before he was born and had already appointed him to be a prophet. Jeremiah started to protest, like Moses did before him, but of course God already knew that and had a response.

And so God touched Jeremiah’s mouth and put his words in Jeremiah. Such amazing call stories of unlikely people. Moses was born a Hebrew slave and additionally he had a stuttering problem. Samuel wasn’t even supposed to be born, as his mother was barren. Isaiah, well, he might have been who got picked. And Jeremiah was just a boy. But God called them each, along with countless others, to speak his word. In missionary training, every day before lunch, we shared what we called “God moments.” We were limited to five minutes and we were supposed to tell of a time when we encountered God in a real way. It evolved into sharing call stories, how God called us into ministry and mission (and the five minute limit went out the window). But the cool thing about it was that each of us had a unique story of how God had called us to ministry and mission, whether it was a single anecdote or the whole story.

But one issue I have is that often we get caught in a trap. We get caught in a trap that says that only clergy or missionaries should tell their call stories. Actually, we go even deeper in the trap, to suggest that lay people might not even have call stories. But the Gospels are full of Jesus saying outrageous things like, “Come, follow me.”

Who does Jesus call to follow him? In Mark 10:14, he says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”  Jesus is calling children. Now, we think of children as treasures from God, valuable and beloved and important, but in Roman times, children had no status whatsoever. In fact, a child was not considered a human until his father decided he wanted to adopt him into the family – if not, the child was left out and if someone else came and took that child and raised him or her, that was fine, but otherwise the baby would die of exposure. Incidentally, it was the Church who stood up against this behavior and it was Christians who adopted many of these babies, saving them from death. Because we recognize that Jesus is calling children, blessing them. There are many reasons why United Methodists baptize babies, and one reason is because Jesus personally calls children to himself, saying, “it’s not because of who you are or what you have done; it’s because of who I am and what I have done.”

We have a lot to learn from children. In fact, Jesus goes on to say, “I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them. (Mark 10:15-16)

(story of Chris at Church of the Village)

Right after the story in Mark where Jesus called the children to him, Jesus called a rich man to follow him – we often refer to him as the “rich young ruler.” The man asked Jesus what he had to do to inherit eternal life, and after he told Jesus that he had kept the commandments since he was a child, Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21)

I believe Jesus calls all kinds of people to follow him. Helpless children, rich adults, and every kind of person in between.

It’s not about clergy or laity, and I would go so far as to say that I believe we have constructed a false dichotomy between the two. We sometimes go so far as to suggest (consciously or unconsciously) that only clergy can do certain things –our United Methodist rules say that only clergy can perform baptisms and bless the Communion elements, and since I’ve sworn to uphold United Methodist doctrine, I adhere to this, but there are other things that were never just the clergy’s job in the first place. Evangelism, for one. It makes me sad when someone tells me that they wish I would go talk to their friend who I have never met, because they think that I have some kind of magic power that can change their heart and mind on a first conversation. Usually what happens is this: “Oh, you’re a pastor? I used to go to church, but I don’t anymore because…” or “Oh, you’re a pastor? Here are the problems with the modern church.” All they see me as is a professional Christian.

Meanwhile, you’re the one who has an authentic relationship with them, who has been with them for years. One of the saddest things I ever heard was someone suggesting that I should be in the crowd at their grandchild’s sports games so I could reach their friends, the other grandparents and parents for Christ. Meanwhile, the person who made the suggestion is at all the games but never speaks up about any type of relationship with Jesus.

Oh, and the truth is, I like to go to sports games, and I always find myself chatting with the other fans and building relationships and friendships. Even with the other team’s fans.

In 2 Peter 2:9-10, the Bible has some strong words for the laity. Listen to how Peter describes the “normal person in the pew.”

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

A chosen people. Chosen on purpose. Remember back to the school yard, when kids were being picked for teams? You are Christ’s first pick. Not an afterthought. Not a package deal, like, “I get Tommy, and you can have the last two.” No, you are the first pick, God’s special possession.

And you are a royal priesthood. What does this mean? A priest is the one that mediates between God and human. The biggest problem I have with the Roman Catholic Church is the practical role of priests. 2 Peter tells us that every believer is a priest, and because we are priests, we all have the role to mediating between God and humanity. Our role, our job, our calling is to bring God to people. But how we go about it is going to look different for each of us. The one thing that is non-negotiable, however, is that we do it.

We are each called. Whether your call came early or late, whether through God’s audible voice or a dream or a friend or a prayer time. We are called. So what do we do with our call? I don’t believe most calls are into full time vocational ministry. Most are calls to full time lifestyle ministry. Being a Christian at school. At work. In the home. Boldly telling others about Jesus. Sharing your faith wherever you are. Strengthening the believers.