Coming Home


Fundamentals of Christian Living: God’s Grace


“This fellow welcomes sinners and even eats with them.” Luke 15:2

Last week we looked at the Cross of Jesus Christ as fundamental to the Christian faith. There can be no Christianity without the Cross of Jesus.  We said that the Christian faith rises and collapses on the question of Jesus Christ and the cross. We believe that God became flesh (took on the form of a man in Jesus) and dwelt among us. He later suffered and died a humiliating death among criminals on the cross. This was a scandal to Jews who believed that a messiah cannot be killed, and it was foolishness to the Greeks who could not understand how a man could give his life for people that didn’t want him and had rejected. Yet for us who believe it is the power of God demonstrated through love even in death. Therefore, it is our hope for salvation. Without a clear understanding of the message of the cross, there is very little chance of living successfully as Christian disciples.

Today, we look at another fundamental of Christian living – God’s Grace.

The Christian faith begins with an assumption that we came from somewhere, and we are going somewhere. That, somewhere along the way, something happened that alienated us humans from God. God created humans in “imago Dei” (God’s image) as living souls, male and female and placed us on earth. Humans were thus created perfect and with a purpose, and God saw that it was good. But sin being present in the world distorted everything including the image of God in humans.

Sin also separated us from God.  And as such, our consciences were disillusioned. We are thus all lost. We no longer seem to know what our purpose is. So we try filling the void with meaningless thrills – alcohol, sex, material possessions, fame, etc. We call evil good and good evil. We no longer see ourselves as part of the whole human community, but instead we have become more self-absorbed and obsessed. Each one for themselves. Isaiah 53:6 says “All of us like sheep have gone astray and we have no clue where we are headed.” We all are like lost sheep.

Luke tells us that all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and Scribes (religious leaders) were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” They couldn’t just stomach the idea of Jesus hanging out with people they considered outcast. People they thought didn’t deserve a chance.

Tax collectors were some of the most hated people in Israel due to the nature of their work and alliance with the Roman government. Many were wealthy loan sharks and accumulated their wealth by imposing higher levies than even the Roman government required. They were thus seen as traitors, extortionists, and criminals. It was a scandal and against popular opinion that anyone who considered themselves righteous or one with the people would friendly interact with them. And Jesus did exactly that. He welcomed and even included some among his disciples. Remember the first gospel in the New Testament? Matthew – he was a former tax collector with his co-worker Zacchaeus.

To be honest most of us would likely sympathize with the grumblers.  I am certain that I have done that before. There are just certain people who have done deplorable things that I would not want to associate with. There are certain characters that I don’t want to influence my thoughts and tarnish my character. Even just thinking about it makes me nervous. In fact, one of my favorite Bible verses is Psalm 1. Blessed is the one who does not follow the counsel of the ungodly, or walks in the path of sinners, or sit in the seat of scoffers, but instead delights in the law of the lord.”

I don’t know what I would do with Scoffers like Thomas Jefferson who said “the Christian God is a three headed monster; cruel, vengeful and capricious. If one wishes to know more of this raging, three headed beast-like god, one only needs to look at the caliber of people who say they serve him. They are always two classes: fools and hypocrites.”

Yet Jesus welcomed such people. He even had sleepovers at their houses. He knew that they were lost – “This fellow welcomes sinners and even eats with them.” the scoffers, tax collectors, the law breakers, loan sharks. Jesus uses a parable to explain his motivation and actions. Jesus demonstrates that God’s greatest desire is for us to be reconciled with God; regardless of our social reputation. God takes the first step. Guthrie puts it well when he says “God does not demand that we first do something to make up for what we have done or not done before God reluctantly agree to forgive and love us again” (Guthrie, 1994, p. 257). God makes the initiative to seek us out when we are lost. It is not we who makes peace with God; it is God who makes peace with us. That is a fundamental Christian understanding.

Grace gives you the desire to think about the possibility and our need for God.  Grace causes us to repent of our sins and gives us the assurance of forgiveness, and grace enables us to desire to grow in love of God and neighbor. Grace is the unmerited favor of God. It is the divine initiative to seek and recover those who are lost in sin. Grace is the unfailing love of God. One commentary said “love does not care if it looks foolish. Love only asks that it be allowed to love at whatever cost.”  

How does God see us?

Many of us look at ourselves and think we are beyond God’s reach. We think of ourselves as undeserving of God’s love and attention. We look at what we have done in the past, the people we have hurt, the mistakes, the regrets. We cannot forgive ourselves and so we think even God cannot forgive us. We try to work out our own salvation and try to manufacture God’s attention.

However, God does not see us as worthless and despicable. He does not look at a sinner and shake his head in disbelief or resignation that salvation for such a one is impossible. Instead God looks at you and me and sees God’s own reflection. In the image of God we were created, male and female. Not as little gods, but as the highest form of God’s creation to reflect God’s own glory. You are, therefore, precious in the sight of God. It does not depend on what you do or haven’t done. It depends on God’s unfailing love that is extended to you. God desires a relationship with you. All we have to do is receive the gift – Jesus.

Sinners as characteristic of sheep – sheep don’t intentionally run away, they wander off unintentionally in search for greener pasture. Often they just look for their next immediate thrill until they wander off and panic. It can thus be said that they are more naïve than rebellious. Many of us are like sheep. Naïve of our limitations. We often don’t know that we are lost until it is too late or somebody reminds us. Some of us even when we are reminded still argue with the GPS, yet it graciously keeps on recalculating. We don’t intend to rebel against God, but we wander off because of ignorance and stubbornness. We crave empty thrills.

Those who intentionally rebel against God are often referred to as wolves in the bible. These are people who know and have tasted the truth, they know they’re doing wrong but do it anyway – Either because of pride or selfishness. Lucifer (Satan) lost his place in heaven because of pride. He thought he deserved to be worshiped as God was.

Are you living an intentional life or are you simply drifting along? Do you know where you are headed? Is your life filled with hope?

How does God react when we repent?

Verse 7 of Luke 15 tells us that heaven throws a shindig when one lost sinner repents. It is like having a child that was lost and thought dead suddenly comes back home. God throws a party in heaven. There is joy in the Holy Ghost. Maybe you have been gone away from God or faith for a very long time and you think it’s too late. Maybe you are holding onto a grudge, you are angry and cannot forgive. Maybe you are lost and don’t know what to do?

The Holy Spirit is calling you to home. “Behold I stand at the door and knock? If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them” (Revelation 3:20). Jesus moved by compassion left his comfortable place in heaven to look for all of us who are lost. God’s grace is sufficient. God’s love never fails.

Come home!

Sermon by Kelvin Mulembe ,  for September 24, 2016


Guthrie, Jr., S. C. (1994). Christian Doctrine. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press.

Living Church


The Fundamentals of Christian Living: The Living Church (Acts 2)

Around the world millions of people are gathered in worship and celebration of communion as we join in recognizing October 2nd, as  World Communion Sunday. One voice of worship is rising to the heavens churches gather. The Apostles’ Creed includes a clause which declares that “Christians believe in the Church.” And some of us are uncomfortable with saying we believe in the holy Catholic Church. So what is meant by all this? What is the church, and what is its purpose? In this day and culture where we are obsessed with individualism and personal space, can we truly practice Christianity through the church as Christ instituted?

In Greek the word for Church is ekklesia, which sometimes carries a double meaning. And anything with a double meaning has the potential to create significant confusion. Much of our contemporary understanding of the church is so convoluted and misinformed. Partly because Christian leaders have done a bad job at explaining the nature and purpose of the church or more importantly they have lived lives that embarrassingly fall short of the ideals they preach. Jesus said “your love for one another will prove that you are my disciples.” But this has not been so obvious. Mahatma Gandhi one of the great reformers of India is known to have had admiration for Christ but not Christianity – famously quoted “Your Christ I like, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike Christ.” Unfortunately, this seems to be a growing perception that many people hold of Christians, and consequently the church.

Scandals of child molestations, infidelity, embezzlement, war mongering, and all kinds of mischief that has engaged in have tainted the purpose and appeal of the Christian message. Recently we heard of Father John Mattingly former pastor of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church who was indicted for fraud. Over decades he wrote about 500 unauthorized checks and stole close to $76,000 money meant for the poor and put it in his retirement accounts. The church community has been deeply hurt and trust shaken.

In Acts 2, the author describes a model of what the church should be. We see a community driven by an appetite for learning God’s word, of communion and breaking of bread, and of prayer. People began to ask what they should do to be saved, to join the community of faith. I wonder how many people in the past year have come to you and asked what they should do to become Christian? Do they see a representative of the church of Jesus Christ? Do people at your workplace even know you as a Christian? Until we recover the true message and character of the Kingdom of God, the church will keep dying.

Significance of the Church – the church is fundamental to the Christian living because it was instituted by Christ. No one person can claim authority to build the church   “On this rock, I will build my ekklesia, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

In the New Testament, the word church is used in two distinct ways. In some cases the church refers to the community of all true believers for all time. Ephesians 5:25 says “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” This applies to all those for whom Christ died to redeem both in the present life and those that have gone before us from the Old to the New Testament. In Psalm 22:22 the church refers to an assembly or congregation, “in the midst of the ekklesia, I will sing praises.” Assembly (fellowship) thus dismisses the notion that you can have church alone on your couch while watching televangelists. It denotes you having fellowship with other believers. I used to be one of those people who claimed I was having church at home watching preachers when I felt lazy to actually go to church.

The second way, church is described as a geographical locale. Revelation 3:14-22 is addressed “to the Church in Laodicea”. Similarly, Paul’s letters to the Church at Corinth or Philippi imply a local community of believers. It is my belief that Christ did not intend for us to have various denominations. But I also trust in God’s sufficient grace to use the various denominations and non-denominations to express God’s universal reach. Traditionally, the church holds that there is only one universal church which exists in local communities (McGrath, 2012, p. 138).

The nature of the church – appears to be both local and universal. And we Christians must live with this tension in order to be faithful disciples.  We can say the Church is a worshiping community established by Christ for Christian fellowship and witness. Hebrews 12:1 talks the great “cloud of witnesses” denoting an invisible membership. On this World Communion Sunday, we are joined by multitudes of ekklesia, assemblies of believers to worship God. Though we cannot see them, we are still joined as one church.

Thus, the church is invisible yet also visible. Invisible because only God knows those who truly belong, only God knows our inner hearts (2 Timothy 2:19). However, the church is also visible as we all here are the Christian representatives, we can see it through all who profess Christ and live out their faith on earth. All of us make up the church. Some not so polished, most of us broken and trying, sinners searching for the truth, you name it. Day by day we are being perfected by the Holy Spirit’s  work in our lives as we continue to follow God’s word.

The church’s primary task is – to actively participate in receiving and practicing God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven; – to make disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world (Campbell, 1999, p. 112). Therefore, the institutions of the church, its activities, its worship and its theology must be tested by how effectively it succeeds in receiving and practicing the Kingdom of God. The church cannot see itself outside the universal Kingdom of God.

Today however, our focus has shifted. The church seems to find its aims in itself, detached from community and individually focused. We have stopped being missional except if it benefits local congregations, or adds to our branding. We have stopped being a global and outward movement and become solely institutional and localized. If the church stops spreading, it is dying. In order to be the true church of Jesus, we  need to re-engage in movement spreading. Through this grace-filled response we participate in bringing about the reign of God on earth.

How can we live faithfully as the living church?

The church was initiated by Christ through the Holy Spirit. On the day of Pentecost we know as assembly of believers reached three thousand plus. Church plays a significant role in bringing about salvation. Physically Church reminds us that we belong to the family of God as we gather in community with from various backgrounds. It is a means of grace through which the Spirit bears witness of the presence of God’s Kingdom on earth.

Church is the living witness of the power, righteousness, and love of God. It enables an environment in which we are empowered to grow in love of God and of neighbor. It gives us opportunity to seek and practice the common good. There is no room for selfishness in the Kingdom of God.

Church is the tool God uses to convey God’s engagement in healing relationships. Luke shows us that in the early church, they all had a commonwealth of resources. They shared all things in common. They cared for the needs of its members. These are the seeds that grow the church. That appeal to those who are not yet part of the community. Love is and should be the defining characteristic of the church.

Church creates an environment of attaining Christian maturity and discipleship. Next time you feel like skipping church for no proper reason, remember that you are depriving yourself and us of God’s gift for maturity and fellowship. The choice is yours and there is no excuse for ignorance. Henry David Thoreau said – “the price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it. What are you paying for staying away from church? – From studying God’s word, from practicing daily prayer? It is like a book with missing chapters. Your story adds to the richness of our story of faith. Your testimony and prayer helps bring salvation and healing to someone else. You may never know what your presence does.

The author of Hebrews encourages us “do not neglect meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encourage one another — especially now that the day of breaking forth of God’s reign is drawing near (Hebrews 10:25). In short, do not stop being the church. Do not stop coming to church. Do not stop praying for the church universal. May God build the church!


Sermon by Kelvin Mulembe

Fundamentals of Christian Living: Scandal of the Cross

By Pastor Kelvin Mulembe

September 18, 2016

The words fundamentals or basics are often mistaken for something unsophisticated. The more sophisticated we become the more we tend to overlook our foundation. However, if we neglect the foundation, the fundamentals or basics of our faith, we will fail to live faithfully as Christians.

How many of us in here are Christians? I know that question sounds redundant, or perhaps even judgmental. Of course we are all Christians, we are in church, right? Only Christians go to church. Well, my Jewish friend comes here too. He’s not a Christian. And, there may be others who are not sure, and are still searching for the Truth. Being born in a Christian family doesn’t automatically make you a Christian. Just like not everything in a garage is a car. To be Christian entails receiving, believing, and practicing what is known as the Christian Truth. So what is the Christian truth?

Most of us who have grown up in predominantly Christian cultures assume we are Christians. In fact, in this nation we unconsciously link being American to being Christian. We talk about American values as Christian values and vice versa. To be Muslim or Buddhist or anything else is seen as anti-American, and therefore, anti-Christian. Even with efforts to try to separate church and state, we find some Christians who value the American flag more than they value the Bible. I have been to churches where the American flag has literally and symbolically replaced the cross of Jesus. Pulpits that are adorned in the American flag but having no Cross.

But, can we still be the church of Jesus Christ without the Cross? What is the significance of the Cross in our faith? You may say what does it have to do with anything in my life, with my job, my homelessness, my illness, my family? Why can’t we just love one another? Surprise, surprise, everything! The Christian faith rises and collapses on the question of the Cross. There is no message greater than the belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His death is absolutely necessary to understanding the Christian truth. Without the Cross of Jesus, there is no Christianity. A Christian must believe that Christ died for our sins and was raised from death so that we may have eternal life. Christianity is a truth claim that “Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life”

Unfortunately, Christianity is on the decline in America. In the last seven years, the number of Americans who identify as Christian dropped from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent. 56 million adults living in America today do not affiliate with any faith (“Pew Research Center,” 2015, p. 1). There is a cultural and spiritual shift. I am convinced that this shift has to do with our loss of focus on the fundamentals. Christianity has become an alternative ideology rather than the good news.

Paul was confronted with a similar shift. As the Greek culture (Hellenistic) began to influence Christian thought and practice, through philosophy and rhetorical debates, and popular regard for charisma and wisdom became trendy, the Corinthian Christians began to conform to the standards around them. Divisions arose within the church as a result of celebrity worship. Some said they were for Paul, others Cleo’s people, some Cephas’ and others were for Jesus. Much like we have celebrity preachers of our own. I am for T.D Jakes, or Joyce Meyer, or Joel Osteen, I am for Adam Hamilton or Tom Berlin.

Christianity began as movement within Judaism. Followers of Jesus were not called Christians, but as “people of the way.” The message they preached was about the way of the Kingdom of God. This way of God’s kingdom was the direct opposite of everything that humans thought was important and plausible. Many Jews and Greeks alike opposed the message as shallow and unsophisticated. As foolishness and a dangerous scandal to the religious institution.

This could explain why the Corinthian church was in trouble, just like our church today. We have lost the essence of being a movement and have become an institution. We resist everything that doesn’t fit it in, including what may be the working of the Holy Spirit. We have been consumed by a desire to conform to the standards of the world rather than to be a light for the world. Our worship services are now geared towards comfort and convenience, and are void of power to transform lives. But the church is not about an organization. Christianity is not about rules and regulations. It is about living by faith under the reign of God. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Rollo May the famous American psychologist once said, The opposite of courage is not cowardice, but conformity.” People acting like everyone else. We conform to what is popular around us. Just because the message of the cross is uncomfortable, does not mean the church needs to dilute it. Paul says the message of the cross appears foolishness to some, but to us who are being saved, who are experiencing transformation, it is the power of God. This gospel of Grace is the most powerful good news available to humanity. I personally know how it changed my life and the lives of many. Try it for yourself, and your life will never be the same again.

I remember being a part of congregation that split because the Associate Pastor was more charismatic than the senior pastor. To be honest, he was more gifted both as a preacher and as a pastor. The senior pastor was boring, and a very rigid intellectual. His sermons were elaborate discourses that showed his higher education. He always talked down on others and never really took time to know the people. You could not visit him without an appointment. The Associate pastor on the other hand was the exact opposite. He was easily accessible and more sociable. So, naturally people began to gravitate towards him. This put a strain on the relationship between him and the senior pastor and he stopped giving him opportunity to preach.

This went on for a long time, until things got worse. People stopped coming to church, but would attend the bible study at the associate pastor’s house. Eventually, the senior pastor ordered the bible study illegal. People boycotted and continued to meet. Things got out of hand that the leadership decided to let go of the associate pastor. When this announcement was made in church, half the congregation left and followed the associate pastor to start another church.

Paul warns us as he did the Corinthians that Christ cannot be divided. We cannot let our own selfish interests dictate how God should work among us. Only Jesus died for us, and only Jesus has the power to forgive our sins. We cannot engineer our own or other people’s salvation, nor can we find salvation by human wisdom. No matter how educated or sophisticated, we cannot think ourselves out of a sinful nature. Only Christ can forgive our sins and transform us.

In order to understand the fundamentals of Christian living, we need to revisit the significance of the message the cross, and clearly understand Christ, Salvation and the language of Sin.

In the next few weeks, we are going to look deeper at other aspects of Christian fundamentals.

What is sin? In our contemporary usage the word “sin” could be understood as a moral failing or immoral act. In theology sin is something that separates humanity from God (McGrath, 2012, p. 92).

What is salvation? Salvation is the breaking down of the barrier that separates humanity from God on account of Christ. It is not about having a Mercedes Benz car, or a fat bank account. It is about being reconciled with God and living an abundant life in Christ.

Who is Christ? Christ is the redeeming sacrifice, a demonstration of God’s unfailing love for humanity. He is the messiah, the savior or the world. The only hope for salvation.

As we start this week, God is calling us to come back to into relationship. Though we have moved away, and led lives that are in contradiction to Christian living, the grace that Christ demonstrated on the Cross is still available and sufficient to welcome you home. Come home to Jesus. The cross symbolizes forgiveness of our sin through Christ Jesus.The cross also symbolizes victory over sin and death – “the word of God was made flesh in order to destroy death and bring us to life….” The cross also symbolizes Christ’s self offering as a perfect sacrifice. Though it may appear as foolishness, or a scandal, to us who believe it is the power of God for our salvation. Amen!



America’s Changing Religious Landscape. (2015). Retrieved from

McGrath, A. E. (2012). Theology: The Basics (3rd ed.). West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.


The Life of a Prophet: Can These Dry Bones Live?

Scripture: Ezekiel 37:1-14

Not everyone is called to be a prophet.

Not all of us are called to that particular life of seeing the world through God’s eyes, of speaking truth to power, of unsettling people with words they would often rather not hear.  Not many of us have heard the voice of God so clearly as to claim to speak for God.  As Paul reminds us, God made some of God’s people apostles, and some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, all for the sake of doing God’s work together (Ephesians 4:11).

But I do believe that we can all live lives that are a little bit more prophetic.  I believe that wherever life takes us, whatever our particular ministry is, we can apply some lessons from the prophets: To be concerned for the orphan and the widow.  To speak up for righteousness and justice.  To boldly believe that God’s call is enough for us, unworthy though we may be.  To weep with God’s people who are hurting.  To cultivate an intimate connection with God’s Word.  These things, as I’ve preached throughout this series, are things all of us can do.

Today we hear again from Ezekiel, our prophet of trippy visions and fantastic sign-acts.  Where we left off last week, Ezekiel was in Babylon, at a precarious time for the Kingdom of Judah.  The Babylonian army had already carted off the first wave of exiles from Jerusalem, the government officials and religious elites, of whom the priest Ezekiel was one.  Ezekiel was commissioned as a prophet by the River Chebar and instructed by God to eat a scroll with God’s Word written on it, words “of mourning and lamentation and woe.”  Those words would let God’s people back in Judah know that the worst was not yet over, that in a few short years Jerusalem would be utterly destroyed.

As we pick back up with Ezekiel today, much later in the book, that thing which was both unthinkable and inevitable has happened.  Jerusalem, God’s own city, has fallen.  The Temple, the place where God’s glory resided, lies in ruins. God’s people are scattered across the empire.  And they who once thought they were indestructible under God’s protection are asking, why has God forsaken us?  It’s a situation the biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann compares to America in the aftermath of 9/11, with its sense of “emotional, political, and theological free fall.”[1]   That’s a feeling that we surely remember especially clearly today.

Ezekiel had prophesied judgment on God’s people for their unfaithfulness, but now that that judgment has come to pass, things are different.  Given the new political and theological landscape, Ezekiel’s message changes.  It is no longer a message of doom, but of what comes after doom.  And what comes after doom?  Hope.

You may have heard it said that God afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted.  This is also a good summary of what God’s prophets do.  There is a time for judgment, to jar people out of their complacency, but there is also a time to deliver a much-needed message of hope to God’s afflicted people.

And so, in the wake of all of this, God gives Ezekiel another vision.

In this vision Ezekiel is transported from Babylon and set down in the middle of a certain valley.  It is a parched, rocky, desolate place.  He looks around him and all he can see for miles are human bones and as he tells us, “they were very dry.”

Somehow the first picture this conjured up for me was of the Elephant Graveyard from the Lion King: this creepy, forbidden, fog-covered wasteland littered with skeletons, the place where the hyenas live.  We might also think of an abandoned battlefield, or maybe one of those pictures of a mass grave from Rwanda in the mid-nineties.  Ezekiel walks all around, slowly taking it all in.

God asks Ezekiel, “Mortal”— (God always calls Ezekiel “mortal”)—“can these bones live?”

It’s an odd question for God to ask of a mere mortal.  The answer would certainly seem to be no; the bones of dead people don’t just put themselves back together and come alive.  But Ezekiel answers in the way I imagine I might, too: “You’re the only one who can answer that, God!”

God just says in response, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.”

Well, surely bones can’t hear the word of the Lord, but this is a vision, so we’ll go along with it, like Ezekiel does, and God continues: “I will cause breath to enter you, and you will live.  I will put sinews on you, and I will cover you with flesh, and wrap you in skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

And as Ezekiel repeats these words to this pile of human rubble, suddenly the bones begin to rattle.  Can you imagine the rattling as all the bones piled up in this valley begin to move?  And the bones begin to come together, and suddenly there are sinews growing on them, and flesh and skin covering them, and then God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath, or the wind or the spirit, telling it to fill these lifeless bodies with breath, and the bodies begin to come alive.

It’s really quite a vision.

But as God tells Ezekiel next, it’s not really about the bones.  It’s about the people of Israel, the exiles, people who have seen true horror, who have been cut off from their home and their people and seemingly forsaken by God.  People who, the way they themselves see it, might as well be as dead and dry as those bones.

God tells Ezekiel to tell those people, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.”

What comes after doom?  Hope.

We may not all be called to be prophets but we all know what it is like, from time to time, to feel like those are our bones in that valley—to feel that we are exiles in our own lives, that we are lifeless and forsaken, cut off from everything that matters to us, that there is little hope of anything ever being different or better again.  We know it in personal ways, and we also know it in collective ways, in the wake of events like 9/11.

And so for all of us, Ezekiel’s vision is a reminder that even when all seems lost, God has other plans.  We could call it a foreshadowing of God’s greatest “other plans” yet—the resurrection of Jesus.  Ezekiel reminds us that God has always been a God of resurrection, even in the Old Testament, always bringing life out of death and hope out of despair.  That wasn’t just a one-time thing, and it’s not something that only happens when we are literally dead: when all seems lost, God gives God’s people new life.

But this vision of Ezekiel’s isn’t just an Easter-y message of God’s ultimate power over death and despair—though it is that.  It’s also about the prophet, and his job to speak a powerful word of life into a landscape of death.  The power comes from God, of course: but those bones don’t start rattling until Ezekiel tells them that by God, they shall live.

And how can he do that?  How can he look at those piles of bones and tell them with a straight face to get up?  How can look his fellow exiles in the eye and tell them it will be OK, they’ll go home and know God is with them again?

He can do it because he sees things differently than they do: he sees things the way God sees them.

I like the way one writer put it: “Can these bones live?  Of course not.  But look at them through God’s eyes, and watch bones rushing to their appropriate partners.  Watch as ligaments bind them together, flesh blankets them, and skin seals them tightly.  Watch as God’s Spirit, which heals hopelessness, infuses them, so that they rise up—a great army testifying to the power of Yahweh.  Can corpses be brought forth from graves and become living beings again?  Absurd!  But look through God’s eyes, and watch them come up, receive God’s spirit, and return home.  When we raise our vision to look beyond what our mundane eyes can see, we watch the impossible happen through God’s eyes.”[2]

Looking at this world through God’s eyes means sometimes that we speak a word of protest in the midst of complacency; but it also means speaking a word of hope in the midst of despair.  This, I believe, is a big part of living more prophetically.

Here’s what that doesn’t mean, though: it doesn’t mean offering people platitudes in a shallow response to their suffering.  It doesn’t mean telling people that everything happens for a reason and it’s all part of God’s plan, which sometimes say theologically questionable things about God.  It doesn’t even necessarily mean telling people that it will all be OK.  Maybe it won’t be, in the ways we think of or hope for—but still there can be new life in the dryness and death.

I read that after their land was taken by white settlers and the buffalo killed or driven away, the chief of the Native American Crow Nation found his people in a state probably very much like God’s people newly in exile.  “History ended,” he said.  “The hearts of my people fell to the ground and they could not lift them up again.  There was little singing anywhere.”  But this chief had a dream, maybe not unlike Ezekiel’s vision, and in the dream this is what he learned, and passed on to his people:

-That their traditional way of life was coming to an end.

-That they had to “open [their] imaginations up to a radically different set of future possibilities.”

-That there was hope for a “dignified passage across this abyss, because God is good.”

-And that “we shall get the good back, though at the moment we have no more than a glimmer of what that might mean.”[3]

God’s trusted goodness, of course, does not excuse the damage wrought by the white settlers in the first place (that seems especially important to remember in a week where the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have been in the news protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline) and yet these are powerful words from a prophet to his afflicted people.  What comes after doom?  Hope.

Sometimes speaking that word of hope might not even involve speaking at all: instead, it might mean showing people a glimpse of the life that God promises.  It might mean helping them to see that vision of God’s, of resurrection and newness, of things that can still be different.

There was an essay a few weeks ago in the New York Times titled “Why I Go to Aleppo.”  Aleppo, which has been in the news a lot lately, is the biggest city in Syria and one of the centers of the fighting there, with food and supplies largely cut off.  Its population is now less than tenth of the over two million inhabitants it had before the war began.  This essay was written by a doctor, an American of Syrian origin.  He spends a few weeks a year working there in Aleppo, in a hospital in the basement of a bombed-out building.  There he helps exhausted Syrian doctors and nurses as they treat people coming in from the latest airstrikes and chemical attacks.

This doctor, Samer Attar, was there the day the Twin Towers were attacked fifteen years ago.  He was a medical student at the time, and crammed into an ambulance with nurses and medics to go to the World Trade Center and help.

He wrote, “We wrote our names on the back of our scrubs with black markers in case our bodies needed to be identified. I was scared, but I was surrounded by good people doing the right thing.  I had never felt that way again until I went to Aleppo in August 2013.”

He says one time he treated a boy who got caught in an airstrike during a charity event at his school.  The boy’s father asked why he was speaking in a different language, and the nurse told him that he was an American.  The boy’s father said he had never met an American, and never thought he would.  He couldn’t believe an American doctor would come to Aleppo in this time of war.

“That,” said Dr. Attar, “gave my work a new dimension of meaning: a palpable connection to alleviate the suffering of a people long abandoned.  It lets them know they’re not alone.  It’s … why I go back.”[4]

Maybe it’s too soon to see that there can be life again in Aleppo, life as it is meant to be lived.  Maybe it’s not till the horror is over that we can really start seeing signs of resurrection.  On the other hand, maybe simply being there, risking something, caring, can help people see a little beyond the death and despair.

Just like we’re not all prophets, we’re not all doctors.  But whoever we are, we can all speak a word of life with what we have.  Where there is despair, we can all help show God’s people how things can be hopeful again—even if it is simply to say that they are not alone.  In that, we all can live prophetically.

So when someone asks you, “Can these dry bones live?” You can say, “Yes—by the power of God.”

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks, p. 90

[2] Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, “The Book of Ezekiel: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VI, p. 1503.

[3] Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope, paraphrased in Brueggemann, Reality, Grief, Hope, p. 120-121


The Life of a Prophet: The Prophet Who Ate a Scroll

Scripture: Ezekiel 2:1-3:3

Our Scripture lesson today came from chapter 2 of Ezekiel, but I want to back up a bit for a minute, back to chapter 1, when our prophet first becomes a prophet.  Ezekiel, a priest from Jerusalem who has been exiled to Babylon, is hanging out on the banks of the River Chebar when suddenly he sees the heavens begin to open.  I want you to hear his description of what he sees, and while you listen, I want you to close your eyes and try to picture what he describes.

As I looked, a stormy wind came out of the north: a great cloud with brightness around it and fire flashing forth continually, and in the middle of the fire, something like gleaming amber. In the middle of it was something like four living creatures. This was their appearance: they were of human form. Each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot; and they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. And the four had their faces and their wings thus: their wings touched one another; each of them moved straight ahead, without turning as they moved. As for the appearance of their faces: the four had the face of a human being, the face of a lion on the right side, the face of an ox on the left side, and the face of an eagle; such were their faces. Their wings were spread out above; each creature had two wings, each of which touched the wing of another, while two covered their bodies. Each moved straight ahead; wherever the spirit would go, they went, without turning as they went. In the middle of the living creatures there was something that looked like burning coals of fire, like torches moving to and fro among the living creatures; the fire was bright, and lightning issued from the fire. The living creatures darted to and fro, like a flash of lightning.

Do you have a picture in your head?

He keeps going from here, though I’ll stop there.  From here he sees four wheels, one by each of the living creatures (if you know the Gospel song Ezekiel Saw the Wheel, well, now you know) and the wheels move along with the creatures, and when the creatures flap their wings it sounds like thunder, or an approaching army.  Over the head of the creatures there is a dome, and over the dome there is a throne, and on the throne, someone almost human-like, but with fire coming from his loins.  “This,” writes Ezekiel, “was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.”

Once, in a college class I took on the prophets, we had to draw a picture of what we saw when we heard this.  I sat at my desk paying really close attention, trying to make sure I got all the details right.  But I think I missed the point, which is that you’re not supposed to be able to get all the details right.  This vision is supposed to leave something to the imagination, and even beyond the imagination, because this is a vision of God’s glory that we are talking about, and how can you put something like that in words?

Visions like this are why I like to call Ezekiel the trippiest prophet.

When Ezekiel sees all this, he falls on his face, into a trancelike state, and he hears a voice, and the voice has a job for him.  “I am sending you to the people of Israel,” the voice says, “a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me.”  Ezekiel likes the word “rebel.”  “You shall speak my words to them,” the voice continues, “whether they hear or refuse to hear.”

At this point we might expect the voice, which comes from God, to tell Ezekiel what those words are.  This is what God usually does with the prophets.  But instead, God does something different.  God tells Ezekiel to open his mouth—not to speak, but to eat.

And God hands Ezekiel a scroll, with words written on both sides, “words of lamentation and mourning and woe.”  And God says to Ezekiel, “Eat this scroll.”

At this point we may all be wondering: What’s going on?

Well, Ezekiel, as we heard earlier, is already in exile.  But the worst has not yet come for the people of Judah.  In 597 BCE, the King of Judah had revolted against Babylonian rule and in response got himself sent into exile along with all of Jerusalem’s ruling, elite class—like the priest Ezekiel.  This was the “first wave” of the Babylonian exile.  The second wave will come about ten years later, when the new puppet king propped up by the Babylonians in Judah also revolts, and this time they tear down the Temple and send everyone else they can get their hands on into exile too.  Ezekiel, for the moment, is writing in between these two waves, speaking to both his fellow exiles and everyone left back in Judah, telling them there is more trouble yet to come, and furthermore, that they have brought it on themselves by their failure to be holy people, faithful to God’s covenant.  As always, this is not an easy message.  But Ezekiel is clearly not any old priest.

Eating a scroll, by the way, is not the only weird thing our friend the prophet Ezekiel does.  In chapter 4 Ezekiel is commanded to draw the city of Jerusalem on an unbaked brick, then press a baking griddle against it as a sign of what is to come.  Then he lies on his left side for 390 days, symbolizing the time that Israel is to be punished. Then he switches to his right side for 40 days, for Judah.  Then God commands him to bake a cake over burning human excrement, because the people of Israel will be forced to eat unclean food; though Ezekiel does protest and get it switched to cow dung at the last minute.  He shaves his head and does different things with his hair, in thirds: burning part of it, cutting part of it to pieces, and scattering part of it to the wind—the different things that will happen to the people of Judah.  Ezekiel is a fan of what we call “sign-acts”: not just speaking the Word of God, but also acting it out.  Other prophets do this kind of thing too, but Ezekiel is the king of sign-acts.

Since I’ve been talking a lot in this series about how we can “live more prophetically,” maybe I should specify that I am not necessarily talking about Ezekiel.  Don’t be like Ezekiel.  He is fascinating, but very weird and a little scary.

Except for this one thing, the part about eating the scroll.  There we should be like Ezekiel.

You see, for Ezekiel, the Word of God isn’t just something that he hears and passes on, like he is passing a note from God to God’s people, or playing a divine game of Telephone.  For Ezekiel, the Word of God has to be something he actually puts inside of himself, chews on, digests, perhaps that he is strengthened and nourished by—before he can deliver it to others.

For a prophet, the Word of God has to fundamentally become part of who he or she is—and I believe that is true not just for those biblical figures who are formally commissioned as prophets, but for all of us who hope to live a little more prophetically.

Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, once got a card from a little boy names Jim.  Jim had drawn a picture in the card, and Sendak thought it was charming, so he sent a card back with a hand-drawn picture of a Wild Thing in it.  He wrote: “Dear Jim, I loved your card.”  Later Maurice Sendak got a letter back from Jim’s mother, who wrote, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.”  Sendak said, “That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received.  He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything.  He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”[1]

Do you love the Word of God like that?

I wonder what it would be like to eat the Bible, the Word of God?  What would it be like to eat the Ten Commandments?  The Beatitudes?  Jesus’ parables?  I imagine each of them might taste a little different, and have their own unique texture.  The Ten Commandments would be brown rice, a dietary staple, but nutritious, too.  The Beatitudes would go down sweet and smooth with their words of blessing.  But then we might find they have a little kick to them, the kind that sneaks up on you.  The parables would be sure to be nice and chewy.  Maybe you can come up with some more!  Then again, we can’t make too many assumptions, because the words Ezekiel ate were words of mourning and lamentation and woe and he said they tasted sweet like honey—maybe because they were the truth, that the people needed to hear, even if it was hard.

If that’s a strange thing to think about—what would the Bible taste like—remember, Ezekiel is a pretty weird prophet.

But here’s a less weird idea: instead of literally eating the pages out of our Bibles, maybe we just spend some more time with them.  Maybe we read the words slowly, two or three times or more, instead of rushing through a familiar story and thinking we know what it means.  Maybe we try some different translations and see how they illuminate those original Hebrew or Greek words from different angles.  Maybe we sit back and close our eyes and allow ourselves to imagine being part of the story, or maybe we draw what comes to mind, like my professor had us do in college.  And maybe we pray and listen for what God has to say to us through the words we are reading, and we read some background and we discuss it with others, and then instead of just moving on with our lives we let it roll around in our hearts and our minds for the next few days as we go about our lives, because maybe it will speak to us again when we least expect it.

Maybe we begin to live more prophetically by making the Word of God part of us that way.

My Methodist theology professor in seminary told us that John Wesley saw the whole world through Scripture-colored lenses.  He spent so much time in it that he brought it to everything he encountered in life: This reminds me of when Jesus does this.  This is what I think God might have to say about this.  I believe it was this perspective that allowed him to speak up against the evils he saw in the world around him, from drunkenness to slavery to riches; and what allowed him to speak prophetically to the church, asking why faith seemed to have done so little to change the lives of so many Christians.  Since my professor put it that way, I have always thought that that was the way I wanted to be.  I want God’s Word to be such a part of me that it becomes part of my living, part of my day-to-day, part of my speech, something that I can’t help but share in word and action.

I think I still have a long way to go, but I also find that as time goes by God’s Word is more and more on the tip of my tongue and in the front of my mind; and if I don’t always act on that, well, that’s on me.

I wonder how often, though, we’re content to pass on God’s Word without really digesting it.  We can quote Scripture and assume we know what it means without really taking the time to sit with it and pray about it and study it.  We may fancy ourselves prophetic because we can quote a chapter or verse, sometimes out of context, to support or to condemn—but how much have we let that chapter and verse become a part of us?

Or maybe the opposite is true—that, because God’s Word hasn’t become a part of us, we’re afraid to speak it.  It doesn’t come naturally to the tip of our tongues.  And we’re not really sure we know what any of it means.  We haven’t tasted the richness of it all.  I think back to how God told Ezekiel not to be afraid of the rebellious people he spoke to, not to be afraid of their words or their looks, not to be afraid “though briars and thorns surround you and you live among scorpions,” and I can’t help but wonder if that was possible only because he ate that scroll, because God’s Word became part of him so that he couldn’t help but live and speak it out, no matter what people would say.

Even though we don’t eat Bibles around here, we do eat bread.  And we do drink grape juice.  And that’s actually not altogether different.  I believe God speaks to us through those elements, too.  I believe that when we eat and drink the body and blood of Christ, we are empowered to become, as we say, “for the world, the body of Christ redeemed by his blood.”  Take and eat, God says.  It’s a way that little by little, who I am can become part of who you are. 

I’ll close with a story I read once a long time ago about a guy who was talking to a group of youth at a camping event, and at one point he held up a Bible, and they all expected him to say the kind of normal pious things that you might hear about a Bible at church camp.  But instead he tossed it onto the wet, muddy ground and said, “This book is useless!”

Then, picking it up again, “unless you take what is inside this book and put it inside you.”


The Life of a Prophet: The Weeping Prophet

Scripture: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

What are some things that make you cry?

Don’t worry, you don’t have to answer that out loud.  I’m sure we can all think of the obvious answers: the death of a loved one, a breakup, any very bad news of one kind or another.  Sometimes we might cry when we’re angry, in the middle of a fight with someone, or out of sheer frustration—I cried the other day when I couldn’t bend over enough to tie my shoes.  (It had been a long day.)  Maybe sad movies get some of us; or there’s a certain song that reminds us of a certain memory; maybe some of us even cry at happy occasions like weddings and graduations.  Some of us are bigger criers than others, of course.

But you wouldn’t think a prophet would be a big crier.  You’d think a prophet would be more someone standing apart from the people he or she is prophesying to and angrily pointing a finger at everything they’re doing wrong.  And you’d think a prophet would be pretty thick-skinned; if you’re going to forecast the destruction of nations and kings, like we talked about last week, you’re going to need to be prepared for people not to like you very much, and not break down in tears every time that becomes obvious.

But if that’s our image of a prophet, then Jeremiah breaks the mold, because Jeremiah is known as the Weeping Prophet.  We hear it here: “My heart is broken,” he says.  “Because my people are crushed, I am crushed.”  “Is there no balm in Gilead?” he famously laments, knowing that Gilead was where the trees grew that produced that soothing ointment; if there was no balm in Gilead, there wasn’t any anywhere.  And he cries even because he doesn’t have enough tears: “If only my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, I would weep day and night for the wounds of my people.”

So—what was it that made Jeremiah cry?

You may remember from last week that whereas Isaiah was writing during the time when the Assyrians were taking over the Ancient Near East, Jeremiah writes later, maybe a hundred year later by now, when the Assyrian Empire is on its way out and the Babylonian Empire is on the rise.  And the people of Judah, with Jerusalem as its capital, have managed to lay low, pay some tribute, and get through the whole Assyria thing relatively unscathed, but as the Babylonian army marches its way south, that is looking less and less like it’s going to be an option this time.  The people of Judah are in trouble.  Like, really big trouble.

And you remember that when threats surround us from every direction on the outside, where do the prophets want us to look?  On the inside.  And on the inside, Judah has actually just undergone this whole period of religious reform under King Josiah, centralizing worship at the Temple and standardizing rituals and purging any sign of Assyrian religion that might have crept its way in during their rule.  That sounds like it should be good news, but instead what it’s done is made people too sure of themselves.  They’re going through all the right motions, maybe, but their hearts haven’t really changed; they’re still greedy and deceitful and self-righteous and going around oppressing the orphan and the widow; they may have gotten rid of their Assyrian idols, but they are still worshipping other things besides God, like for example money; only they imagine they are holy, and God should be stepping in to save them.  In fact, they seem shocked that God doesn’t seem to be doing so.  “Isn’t the Lord in Zion??” they say.

So it’s both of those things, I think: the knowledge of what is coming and how bad it’s going to be—and it’s going to be bad, because in a decade or two the Temple in Jerusalem will lie in ruins and the people of Judah scattered throughout the Babylonian Empire—and the knowledge of what has brought his people to this point, that makes Jeremiah cry.

It’s amazing to me, in a way, that Jeremiah could know his people so well, could see their sin and brokenness so clearly, and still call them his people, and still cry for what was coming.  He could have stood opposite them, pointing his finger (and he did some of that), but he also cried, for them and with them.  Maybe because he knew his fate was entwined with theirs—or maybe because for all their brokenness, he really did love his people.

But maybe that’s not so amazing to you.  Maybe you know what it’s like as a parent or a partner or a friend to see someone in a spiral of self-destruction, to know that the responsibility lies only with them and there’s nothing you can do, and still feel your heart break for them, and still shed tears for the inevitable end that you see coming.  Maybe that’s what Jeremiah’s tears are like.

Or maybe, we could even say, that’s what God’s tears are like, because it’s actually not very clear whether these words we are hearing are God’s or Jeremiah’s, and when you’re dealing with prophets, that’s the point: their words are not just their own.  Maybe Jeremiah feels like this about his people and everything they’re about to face because, in fact, that’s how God feels.

And it’s here where a prophet’s job gets all jumbled up, because their job is to speak to the people on behalf of God, but sometimes their job is also to speak to God on behalf of the people, or maybe sometimes even to cry to God on their behalf.  Tears go both ways.

But whichever way we look at it, maybe one aspect of living more prophetically is the capacity to weep on behalf of God’s people.

My friend Kim spent our first year of seminary as a chaplain intern at a maximum-security women’s prison.  I always enjoyed, and/or appreciated, the stories Kim brought back from her time at the prison.  I know Kim saw and heard a lot there, and she got to know the stories of a lot of women.

One day Kim was assigned to make her chaplain rounds in the building where the mental health patients were housed.  She was still relatively new, so she ventured in, saying hi and asking how everyone was doing.  As she was doing this an older woman came up to her, leaned in close, and said, “Are you who we confess to?”

And Kim said, “Uh, I guess.”  So she and this woman went into a private cell to talk, and as soon as they sat down, the woman burst into tears.  And not just a few tears, but sobs racking her body as she rocked back and forth and said, “Oh God. Oh Jesus. Oh God.”  Kim was like, “What’s going on?”

The woman cried out that her youngest son had just committed suicide.  It was the third child she had lost: one to a car accident, one to cancer, and now one to suicide.  And then the woman cried out: “And it’s all my fault!”

So Kim tried very pastorally to assure her that it wasn’t her fault, that there was nothing she could have done, but the woman wouldn’t hear it: “No!” she said.  “Don’t you see?  I killed three people, and now three of my children are dead.”  Kim tried every theological argument she knew—about grace and forgiveness, about how she doesn’t believe in the kind of God who would do that as revenge, and all the woman did was become more agitated and say, “No! No!” until finally, Kim just began to cry too.

And they cried together for a few minutes, until the woman reached for a Kleenex, sniffled a little, took Kim’s hand and said “Thank you, Chaplain.”  And then she left.

I don’t know exactly what happened there and I don’t think Kim does either, but I suspect that tears said what theology couldn’t: that someone shared this woman’s pain, deserved or undeserved.  That even as she faced the consequences of her actions, as she saw things, that not everyone was rejoicing at her misfortune; that, in fact, someone who even represented God to her would let her heart be broken, too.

Were Kim’s tears for God on behalf of this hurting, broken woman?  Or were they for this hurting, broken woman on behalf of the God who loved her?  I think Jeremiah would answer, “Yes.”

There’s a saying I love: May my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.  Let me ask you this: what are some things that you think breaks God’s heart? (Maybe poverty, homelessness, racism, materialism, complacency, war in Syria, suffering after natural disaster…)

Now let me ask you: Is your heart broken by those things?

That’s a real question.  We know the answer is supposed to be yes.  But is your heart really broken by those things?  It’s so easy to be overwhelmed by all the need and brokenness in this world, and maybe by our complicity in it, that sometimes maybe all we do is keep walking or change the channel or vow to think about it later, and we dismiss those heartbreaking things and move on without really allowing ourselves to feel the world’s pain.  And I get it: you can’t just around feeling everyone else’s pain all the time; you’d have to get some serious counseling for that.  But then maybe sometimes we keep up our guard so much that we don’t let ourselves feel it at all.

But Jeremiah was on to something: sometimes the only way to make a difference in anything is not to stand there and point fingers at people and say, “You should fix this!  Someone should fix this!” but to let ourselves actually enter into the pain and the brokenness of it all.

Doesn’t that sound like what God eventually did: when even the weeping of the prophets didn’t work to bring people back to God, God entered into the pain and the brokenness of this world Godself.  Jesus became the prophet who brought the people’s pain and brokenness to God, and brought God’s wholeness to the people.  And by the way, some would call Jesus the other Weeping Prophet.  He wept for his friend Lazarus, who died, and for Lazarus’s sisters who came running to Jesus with grief and blame because Jesus hadn’t saved him sooner.  He wept for Jerusalem, knowing not only that his own death was impending but that in a few decades, the Temple would once again lay in ruins, this time at the hand of the Romans.  “If only,” he said, “if only you had known the things that made for peace.”  Jesus allowed his heart to be broken on our behalf.

Somehow, knowing that God allows God’s heart to break on my behalf makes me a little more willing to allow my heart to break on behalf of others.

When Paul describes the kind of Christian community he’d really like to see in his letter to the Romans, he says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.”  Apparently this is our job not just as potential prophets, but as Christians, too.  And I think it starts with being willing to see the pain of others, deserved or undeserved: to not walk so quickly past, to not so quickly change the channel, to not want so badly to protect ourselves from that pain; but to linger for a moment, to keep reading, to sit with that hurting person, maybe even to let ourselves cry.

My friend Nancy told me story from when she worked at a Christian camp years ago.  It was the kind of camp where the kids all lived and did their activities in groups, a certain group all week.  And instead of having all their activities programmed for them, they got to decide as a group what to do, whether it was hiking or canoeing or archery or any of those camp staples.  It was an exercise in Christian community, deciding on these things together and working through their disagreements.

One group of kids had decided that they wanted to go hike Old Rag at the end of the week, and so all week they worked up to this big hike that would be the culmination of their camp experience.  Only the day before their big hike, one of the kids in the group sprained his ankle, and he had to spend the day in the infirmary, instead.

What would you have done?  You’ve worked up to this hike all week, and it’s not like you can make this kid better, anyway.

They decided not to go to Old Rag.  They decided, instead, to stick around close to the camp so they could check in on their friend, and so he didn’t miss out on the one thing they all wanted to do.

Maybe we simply call that kindness.  Dare we call it prophetic?

Well, does it speak a word from God into that situation?  That God cares about this one person who is hurting?  That God feels his pain and as a result, his friends are willing to, too?

Maybe something like that is more prophetic than we know.

It’s always worth it to remember that even for the Weeping Prophet, tears don’t have the last word.  Even through his tears, Jeremiah sees a future in which God’s people are in love with God once again, and able to enjoy what it means to live as part of God’s covenant community, back from exile, in the land that God had promised them.  But sometimes we need to know that someone is willing to cry with us before we can see that vision for a good future, don’t we?  Then we can believe the words of the Psalm: “They who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy, and those who set out in despair will return with arms full of blessing.”

And maybe helping others see the Reign of Heaven here on earth simply begins sometimes with seeing someone’s pain, and letting ourselves cry.

The Life of a Prophet: “I’m only”

Scripture: Jeremiah 1:4-10

How does a prophet become a prophet?

The simple answer, I suppose, is that God makes them one.  God appears, and the prophet stands at attention.  God sends, and the prophet goes.  God gives them words to speak, and the prophet speaks.  That is the simple answer.

Of course, things are rarely as simple as that, even in the Bible.

Last week we were talking about Isaiah and as you may remember, Isaiah was preaching in a world where Assyria was rising to power on the world stage and the question was how to stop them, what alliances to entangle oneself in, or whether to oppose them at all.  By laying low and paying tribute, for better or worse, the southern kingdom of Judah managed to generally hold itself together, though its northern sister Israel was not so lucky.  By the time Jeremiah steps onto the stage, however, the sun is beginning to set on the Assyrian Empire.  They are still officially in charge in the Ancient Near East, but Babylon is growing stronger.  Jeremiah begins his career as a prophet in the year 627 BCE, something like 75 years after Isaiah began his, and it will still be forty years before Jerusalem falls and its people are scattered throughout the Babylonian Empire.  But once again, by the time Jeremiah starts preaching, storms are already beginning to gather to the north.  Things are about to go down, and everyone knows it.

And that’s the overall scene in which God appears to the son of a priest in the region of Anathoth, north of Jerusalem, and says those famous, beloved words: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I consecrated you.”  And then God tells Jeremiah that God has a job for him to do.  This is Jeremiah’s call story.

And Jeremiah says, “Yeah, that’s nice, but I’m pretty sure you’ve got the wrong guy.”

You can’t really blame him for not simply going when God says go.  Being a “prophet to the nations” sounds like a pretty big job.  Who among us, if God told us we were being appointed as a prophet to the nations, would be like “Oh, OK, let me just grab my purse.”  Sounds good, God.  Especially when God gets a little more specific a few lines later: “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

To pluck up and overthrow kingdoms?  That’s the kind of job that’s liable to get a person killed.

Besides, Jeremiah isn’t some big-shot public figure.  He’s not a government person and he’s not a celebrity.  He’s also apparently fairly young.  He’s not an experienced public speaker and he doesn’t exactly have the gravitas that is going to make people turn around and listen to him, yet.

“I’m not saying it’s not a worthy thing for somebody,” he tells God, or at least this is what I imagine telling God if I were in Jeremiah’s place.  “It’s just not for me.”

And God laughs.  I imagine God laughing.

“Don’t say, ‘I’m only a boy,’” God tells Jeremiah.  “Where I send you, you must go.  What I tell you, you must say.”  Notice God doesn’t refute anything Jeremiah says or must be thinking.  God doesn’t say, “You’re old enough for people to take you seriously.”  God doesn’t say, “You really do have outstanding gifts for public speaking.”

It doesn’t matter.  The one who knew Jeremiah before he took shape in his mother’s womb knows all these things already, knows that the one being called is inadequate to the task at hand, and it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that God is telling Jeremiah to go—and, of course, that God will go too.

Jeremiah, by the way, is in good company with his objections.  We may be reminded of Moses, who similarly objected, “I’m not a good speaker.”  We may think of Isaiah, who upon hearing God’s call protested, “But I am a man of unclean lips.”  I’m not worthy, he said.  We may even think of Jonah, who tried to sail away from the job God had for him to do, less out of a sense of personal unworthiness and more out of a sense of the inherent unworthiness of those God was calling him to preach to.  Nevertheless, the biblical pattern is that when God calls, God’s prophets and servants run in the other direction.  Again, it’s hard to blame them.

It’s also, I think, easy to identify with them.   Because when God has work for us to do, we can also be full of all kinds of excuses.

It’s not always “I’m too young.”  That’s one we can only use for so long, right?  But maybe it’s “I’m too old.”  Maybe it’s “I don’t have time.”  Maybe it’s “I don’t know enough for that, I’m not an expert.”  Maybe it’s “Surely someone else would do it better.”  I’m only a child, I’m only one person, I’m only, I’m only, I’m only.

The thing is, if it’s God calling us to a task, none of those things ultimately matter.  When God is calling us, none of our excuses hold up to the urgency of the call.  The one who knew us before we were formed in our mother’s womb knows all the reasons why we’re probably not a good pick, and picks us anyway.

I admit I’ve always kind of had a problem with that, though.  You may have heard the saying, God doesn’t call the equipped; God equips the called.  I was inspired when I first heard that saying, in college, as I was first discerning my own call to ministry.  It made me feel like I could do anything.  It made me feel like there were exciting adventures ahead.  But as I began develop my understanding of what it meant to be called, I realized I had some questions.  God created me with a certain set of gifts, right?  Before I was formed in the womb?  And God has given me certain opportunities and experiences in my life, right?  So wouldn’t God call me to something that put all of those gifts and graces and opportunities and experiences to good use?  And if I didn’t have the gifts and graces and experiences that equipped me for a certain job or a certain kind of life, wouldn’t God call someone else who did, to that?

I mean, if God showed up to me tomorrow and said, “I want you to quit your job in ministry and be an engineer; we really need some good engineers,” I would be like, “That’s nice, God, but I’ve never really liked math, so why don’t you find someone who does?  That seems like a better bet.”

Or more realistically in my case, even, if God showed up to me and said, “I need you to be a church planter, to start a new church out of nothing,” I would be like, “God, that kind of sounds like you have to talk to a lot of people out in public, and there are a lot of people out there who really like that sort of thing, but I’m really kind of a work-quietly-at-my-desk kind of person, so maybe go ask one of them, and that would probably work out better for everybody.”

You see, I want to believe that God generally calls the people God has already equipped.  So I have some questions about what he is doing with Jeremiah here.

But then I have to admit that even that understanding of how and to what God calls us hasn’t always held up for me.  In this job, for example—and this is a job I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my call to—sometimes I have to do things I don’t feel equipped to do.  For example, I got here and a couple months later I got a call from the people next door and they said, “All of Rosslyn is about to get redeveloped, so let’s talk about what’s going to happen to your building.”  And I didn’t want to talk about the building.  I don’t know anything about buildings.  I find it hard to get really passionate about buildings.  And I thought, I am the wrong person to be here at this time.  You’ve got the wrong person.

But it didn’t matter, because I was the one here, and it was my job, now.  My job, I should say, with a lot of help, but my job nonetheless.  My only choice was to believe that God would equip me for the work that God put in front of me to do, inadequate or not.

I keep a Bible verse taped to my computer because I came across it one day and it seemed like the kind of thing I needed to be reminded of, especially on those days I feel inadequate to the work God has called me to do.  It’s from 2 Corinthians and Paul is writing about a terrible ordeal he and Timothy have gone through on their missionary journey, possibly including imprisonment.  He writes: “We felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.”

Here is one step toward living more prophetically: when we are “only” something, when we are too young, too old, too dumb, too shy, too awkward, too whatever to do the work that God has in front of us to do, we need to remember that the God who calls us is not only the God who knows us, but the same God who even raises the dead.

When we’re dead, you see, it’s obvious that it’s not about us and our own limitations: it’s about God breathing new life through us.

And when God calls us, it’s not about us and our own limitations: it’s about God’s power to work through us.

But maybe, you say, that’s not the problem.  Maybe, you say, if I was sure it was God who was calling me, I would go, no questions asked.  But the Word of the Lord doesn’t come to all of us the way it came to Jeremiah, in clearly articulated syllables, and it’s hard to tell if our excuses are really excuses at all, or actually legitimate skepticism.

When you hear “Could you serve on this committee,” is that God calling you to the work of ministry, or is it just Pastor Allie?

When you identify some social ill that we should collectively be working to solve, does that mean God is calling you to dedicate your life to doing something about that?  Because another one might be brought to your attention tomorrow.

I remember a woman from the church I grew up in standing up once and telling a story about how she was just minding her own business one evening and all of a sudden she got this really strong sense that she was supposed to call someone she knew.  It was out of the blue, but she called, and the woman on the other end said, “I’ve just been diagnosed with cancer.”

I can’t say that I have often felt that kind of immediate pull to call someone.  Once I did, I think.  It was a classmate who I knew was lonely and going through some stuff.  The feeling was strong enough that I remember it now.  But it was late, and I lay in bed thinking, is this God really telling me something, or is this just night making everything seem more dire than it is?  Probably I can just IM this guy later, right?  I just IMed him later.  I don’t remember any big revelation coming from that.

It’s not exactly the same as being appointed a prophet to the nations, but still, I think God’s call comes in all forms, from something that gives a singular direction to our lives to the call to simply feed someone who is hungry or be there for a friend who needs us, and a lot of things in between.

And here’s the comforting thing when we are not sure if it is God’s call we are recognizing: When Jeremiah says no, God has something more to say.

God doesn’t simply say, “Well, OK, then, I guess I’ll go find someone older, if you don’t want to do it.”  God insists.

I heard a colleague preach about a youth from her church who told her he thought God was calling him to ministry.  My colleague, like me, was probably the kind of person who normally talked about God speaking in that still, small voice—not in grand visions like the prophets—but this student had heard God speaking to him, clearly, and he wanted to know if that was crazy.

And she told us that he reminded her of something she needed to hear—that “the call of God will not necessarily be missed.”

If it’s God, and we excuse ourselves from the task God has for us to do, we can be pretty sure that God will have something more to say.  Maybe it still won’t be in clearly articulated syllables.  Maybe it will be a feeling that persists until we can’t ignore it any longer.  Maybe it will be another hungry person we might be meant to feed, and then another.  God’s call isn’t a one-day sale.  If you say no, God will keep working.  Think about it: would you trust a prophet who was really that eager to go prophesy destruction to the nations, anyway?  To his own nation?

Eventually, though, if it’s God, we’re going to have to say yes.  Or at least—I hope you do.  I hope I do.

Because I believe that God has a vision of heaven taking shape right here on earth, and I believe we are meant to be a part of making that happen, and I believe that God has work for each one of us to do as part of that.  I believe God calls us—we who are only human, only weak, only ill-equipped—only, only, only.

But God hears our excuses and God laughs and God calls us again—because this is a God who even raises the dead.