A Time for Hope

Guest preacher: Kathleen Hugh

Scripture: Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Last August I went to Edisto Island, SC. to our family reunion. I’ve gone there every year of my life until Covid hit. Now it had been two years, and I sorely needed familiarity. I had become very sad at the prospect of my church building here disappearing and was feeling a great inability to deal with more change. Losing my husband, the isolation of Covid, and now my precious church. Just too much change. 

When I arrived at the house on Edisto, I didn’t find comfort at first. Eventually, I did find joy in seeing my family. But I had left Virginia thinking about this new loss I would be facing in 2022. I just wanted things to be the same here. And, now, as I looked out across the inlet-the reeds, I saw the Atlantic Ocean with its waves crashing on the beach. But that wasn’t what I was supposed to see!! The ocean was supposed to be hidden and far off!! I knew it was there all my life. But it was safely far enough away from where our house was that we had never seen it, unless we went around the island to that beach. 

I remembered my Grandma taking me on a walk around the island to the other side of those reeds when I was five. We were both wading in the calm surf waves. “What is that?” I asked her, as I saw something odd just past my feet. 

“Stairs,” she said. 

“Stairs!? What are stairs doing there?” 

She said, “That is all that is left of all the houses that once stood along this beach.” 

“What happened?” 

She said, “Hurricanes.” 

“I don’t understand, Grandma.”

She said, as we continued our stroll, “There is a time and a season for everything under heaven. A time for endings and a time for beginnings.”

Two weeks later, On the drive back to Virginia from the beach, I turned on the radio and heard the song Turn, Turn, Turn by the Byrds. Beautiful. And actually, the importance of that adventure with my grandmother and my recent visit to the beach house didn’t really register with me until I heard Turn, Turn, Turn. 

When I got home, I looked the song up on YouTube and saw in the notes that the lyrics came from Ecclesiastes. “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven.” All of these memories, places, and songs converged. All together they dislodged my sadness at all the losses, and made me feel, actually, excited. I remembered that I was a case in point. I came here after my husband died, and though I still grieve that loss to this day, I could never have expected to find a level of happiness here that I had never had before. I know I’ll still grieve for our church building: the unpredictable elevator, and the temperamental air conditioning. But now I see what an amazing opportunity we have ahead of us! We will be stripped down to our basics – just us – the people. And we will have that rare opportunity of rebuilding from there.

I think that our church is amazing! And I am not personally desiring change in how we do things. But when I think about the charge Pastor gives us each Sunday: “Who are we and what do we do?”  It reminds me that Jesus didn’t just give his 12 disciples all love and light and tell them to just enjoy. They were to go out and spread that love and light. And that is our challenge as Christians, to move beyond our own comfort in order to bring comfort to others.

I recently learned how this congregation tried many ways of reaching out over the years: weekday services for our businesspeople in the area, a community picnic in the park. Some were great ideas that have had success in other parishes. I gathered that all that effort here did not seem grow the congregation. That had to feel discouraging. And my brief time as the head of our outreach committee led me to feel the same frustration. But now we will be stepped down to our basics, as we rebuild our aging building. Perhaps we can move beyond our expectations and discover together just who those in our community who do not attend a church really are, and why they do not attend. 

I believe our biggest audience is a growing group of people now referred to as the “Nones”.

Not catholic nuns, mind you. N -O -N -E-S. 

Many in this group were raised in one of the Christian traditions, but walked away from it as adults. Many baby boomers also walked away as young adults, but returned when they got married and had kids. But now more young adults are leaving and not returning, even if they have families. Currently, This group exceeds in size all Catholics and Evangelicals in America. The current estimate is there are 60 million Nones in the United States, and 60 million reasons why they left organized religion. Yet 40% say they still believe in God and may even still identify with a religious affiliation. And many of the Nones will, in fact, return, if and when invited in a way that is meaningful to them as individuals.

I know a bit about Nones because, until I found this congregation, I was a NONE.

I was longing to belong to a spiritual community. And I had just about given up trying, after 64.5 years of searching, having never found a church that accepted me as I was, on my individual journey. I had tried many different denominations and churches. I had no idea that by not giving up, I would finally find my spiritual home here.

There is no bigger challenge or charge facing Christians today. Churches are trying many approaches, just as this congregation did. And when it doesn’t work, it is so easy to give up trying. But I am a case in point why it is important to never give up.  

Perhaps many of you have heard the story of a grandmother and her granddaughter who take a walk along the beach. (A different grandmother and a different beach.) They come upon hundreds of starfish washed up on the beach, drying out. The grandmother picks one up and puts it back in the Atlantic Ocean beyond the waves. The child calls out to her grandmother! “Don’t bother. There are so many. It won’t make a difference!”  The Grandmother points to the water where she placed the starfish. “It will make a difference to THAT one!”

I am that starfish. 

You made such a huge difference to me. You changed the trajectory of my life. You greeted me that first Sunday, and every Sunday after that. Pastor invited me to take communion at God’s table, and even though I still didn’t know what I believed about Jesus, all doors and hearts were opened to me here. Every step of the way, you made me feel that I belonged, even when we didn’t believe exactly the same things.

How did you do that? You greeted me warmly each and every Sunday, you accepted me as I was, and supported me as I became. And every step of the way, you helped me get involved in activities I love. You never made me feel less than or unwanted, just because I was on a different part of my spiritual journey. You made me feel that my difference was a strength to be valued. And there are so many more of me out there! 

On my way back to Virginia I had hoped to be able to find and visit an old family friend.  

And on this trip back I happened on a bit of luck. She was 94 now, and in a nearby nursing home. I scheduled a visit, thinking it would be a short one, as I was told she tired easily.  

I was so glad to see how well she was taken care of there. To my surprise, for two hours we had shared tales, reminiscing about our two families’ times together. Oh, we laughed and laughed with shared memories, combined with those pesky little rest-of-the-story tales.  

When it was time and I got up to leave, she got up and gave me the biggest bear hug I had had in years. She whispered in my ear,” Thank you for bringing it all back to life!” We promised to stay in contact, and I cried all the way to my car. 

That day and that visit reminded me how important it can be – how important it IS – to be mindful of the many small ways in which we can be God’s people in the world every day; how easy it can be to make a BIG difference to just one person, just by doing what might seem to be a small simple thing, and how important that effort can be. 

The United Methodist Church has seen the proverbial writing on the wall, as membership in all Christian denominations continues to drop, even while belief in God does not. Some of these approaches may take more planning, and more discovery as we find out who our community members are, as individuals. In the meantime, and for the rest of our time, we can work together and encourage one another to remember the many ways in which we can go out to be God’s people in the world. And we already do this when we smile at one another, listen to each other, pray for each other. 

Surely if we plan and work together we can learn both old and new ways to reach out to find out what the Nones in our community want and need, even over and above what we think they should want and need. People have so many reasons for having given up on organized religion. But I know one thing for certain: if any congregation can bring Nones back into the fold, this congregation will be able to do so in beautiful ways. Believe me, if you could get me to come in and stay… 

If any congregation can make a difference, WE CAN! We can make a difference to Nones in our community, while still serving those we aim to serve, and do serve, now. This congregation has exactly what is needed to make a difference to each and every person. 

There is a time, a purpose to every season – turn, turn, turn – which means to me that we keep beginning and keep starting over as we try new ways, and we never stopping trying. I know we will find many new ways to reach out to people in our community. I am so looking forward to all the little ways in which, together, we will continue to grow as a congregation, in either people or in deeds.

Turn, turn, turn.


An Invitation to the Banquet

Scripture: Luke 14:15-24

A book that changed my life in seminary was called Take This Bread, by a woman named Sara Miles. It’s the story of how she became a Christian and what happened next. Sara Miles wasn’t someone you would have called a “seeker.” She was an atheist who wasn’t “seeking” anything, at least not consciously. But for whatever reason, she happened to wander into a church while she was taking a walk one day, and she took communion, and that’s when everything changed.

I like this story because of what it says about the significance of communion – it’s not just a churchy ritual for churchy people. It can be, as John Wesley put it, a “converting ordinance” – something that invites people into life with God and invites us into deeper life with God each time we participate in it.  This understanding of communion was a big part of what helped me discern that I was called to ministry in the local church instead of somewhere outside of it, and that’s why I say this book changed my life.

I also like this story because of what happened after Sara Miles met God that day in the bread and the wine. She became a member of that church she walked into, and then she started a food pantry there. People from the surrounding neighborhoods came for both food and community right there in the sanctuary, because Sara saw this as a way to extend the communion table outward, into the world. And that was life-changing for me, too, to think that communion is the starting point for how we live our lives as Christians in the world. The grace and mercy and welcome and unity and abundance we practice and receive at the table becomes, hopefully, how we live when we get up from it.

Jesus knew that sharing meals was a thing that could shape people’s lives. Who we eat with, where we eat, how we share, how we interact around a table, all of those things have the power to become muscle memory for how we live each day. It’s why he shared meals with people – people labeled as traitors and sinners, as well as his friends – and it’s why he told stories about sharing meals, too.

This particular story we heard today is a story Jesus told about a dinner party, at a dinner party. It was the kind of Roman-style dinner party where you try to grab the best seats near the host so that everyone knows you’re the most important. Jesus sees how the people are scrambling for the good seats at the table and he has some advice for them: Never take the good seats. Always sit in the least important seats, and then you’ll be honored when the host tells you to move up – rather than the other way around.

Then, Jesus adds: And also? when you have a party? Don’t invite the people who can repay your hospitality. Instead, invite the people who can’t repay, the people who never otherwise get invited to dinner parties.

And then he tells a story.

It’s the story of a man who hosted a banquet. He invited all the right people, all the important people. But when it was time to show up, they didn’t come. They were busy with all the various things life demanded. The would-be host was angry, but he wasn’t about to let his feast go to waste. Instead he sent his servant back out to invite the poor, the beggars, the people who never got invited, and anyone and everyone he could find.

There are some different ways we could read this story: like maybe it is about the opening up of the church to Gentiles, the people who had never been invited into this kind of relationship with the God of the Jews before. But Luke tends to mean it when he talks about money and status, the rich being brought low and the humble poor being exalted. To me this story has always been less about the people who don’t come than about who gets invited in the end: and that is everyone. Everyone, all the riffraff and random passersby out on the street, everyone who never expected to be invited.

And so as we think about what it means to live out our daily lives shaped by our practice of communion, I find myself wondering about this part, about invitation, about sharing God’s wide-open invitation to the table.

It’s been on my mind especially this past year, because I think it’s been easy for us in the past to let our church building do the inviting. It’s here in the middle of a busy neighborhood, and it’s unique looking, and so people who are in the area and looking for a church will come. And that’s great – we’ve met a lot of really great and interesting people from all over the world that way. But I think we also saw the limits of this during the pandemic, because even as we ourselves found that we could stay connected over sometimes vast distances, once we no longer had a building that was open, we saw a lot fewer new people coming in.

Our physical doors are open again. But sometime in early 2022 this building is going to come down and we’re going to find ourselves in transitional space for three years while a new church building is constructed. And once again, we won’t have our own building for people to just find and walk into. And so we’re going to have to think: how do we extend the invitation?

And maybe that’s a chance to think, also, about who’s invited.

I have always thought that Arlington Temple is a church that’s truly welcoming to all different kinds of people. I’ve said before and I’ll say it again, I don’t know a lot of churches where you can walk into the fellowship hall after worship and find a Foreign Service officer having coffee with a homeless person, but I’ve found that here. And at the same time, there are people who are going to be comfortable walking into a church, and people who would never dream of just walking into a church. And yet in the story Jesus tells it’s the people who weren’t going to be part of the party in the first place who end up finding their seats around the table.

I don’t think that the answer is just a big sign or a snazzy website or a well-timed mailing, though those might all be tools to use. Where I think the answer lies is in being present and engaged in service to our community – not just “advertising,” but sharing the love and welcome and justice of God, getting to know the people around us, finding out where they are experiencing brokenness, letting them know they can do this with us.

One of my big hopes for this upcoming time out of our own building is that it will give us new opportunities to connect with the community around us, and maybe even that having to think again about space will help us to think more creatively about how we’re doing church and who we’re inviting and engaging. Over the next few weeks we’re going to be hearing from a few different guest preachers who are going to help us start imagining some possibilities, and during our Charge Conference on October 24 after worship we’ll start to have some conversation about what these possibilities might be.

The author Enuma Okoro tells the story of traveling to South America when she was in her 20s. She rode on the back of a motorcycle with a missionary who lived there and delivered meal packets to people on the street. She was hooked, and she kept going on these mission trips, trips where she found herself “working in the hot sun, not bathing for days, and sleeping on the floors of dirty rooms.” She thought this hardship and adventure made her a real Christian.

Eventually Enuma was offered a job working with street children in Honduras. It was her dream job. And yet as she prayed about it, it didn’t feel right. Maybe, she realized, God was actually calling her to serve her neighbors right where she was.

And so she started getting to know people in her own neighborhood in North Carolina. She played with the kids on her street and cooked them pancakes. She got to know the homeless guy who always stood her exit off the highway. She started learning to be attentive to the needs right in front of her. When we do that, she said, “It’s almost like Christ takes on flesh all over again.”[1]

As we begin to envision our future as a church in transition, even after all the transition of this past year and a half, what are the needs right in front of us? How might God be calling us to be the church in new ways as a part of this community? How is God calling us to extend the invitation to God’s table to people who might never have walked in these doors?

As we gather around the table today, in person or virtually, as we celebrate the diversity of all the different stories we bring to the table, as we celebrate our connection to Christians around the world who gather around similar tables – let’s then live and serve in a way that is shaped by the table. Let’s receive God’s grace and offer it to others. Let’s invite them to join us in both receiving and offering. Because the Kingdom of God is a banquet. The Kingdom of God is a communion table. And everyone, everyone, is invited.

[1] Enuma Okoro, “Service,” in the Animate: Practices study series by Sparkhouse.

Homecoming: Rebuilding Together

Scripture: Nehemiah 3 (selected verses)

Like most pastors, I didn’t go into pastoral ministry in order to attend Trustees meetings. Still, if you asked me what was the best church meeting I’ve ever been to, my mind would go back to a Trustees meeting here at Arlington Temple back in 2017. We were talking about what to do about our broken HVAC system – that wasn’t what made it good. What made it good was that, as we talked, I looked around the table and saw an electrician, an engineer, an architect, a lawyer. Several folks brought their knowledge of the church’s hardware; one had taken pictures. I added some insight here and there about church polity and resources. Each person brought their gifts and knowledge to the table, and while we didn’t leave that night with a solution in hand, we did leave with everyone knowing their own next steps as we continued getting there. And to me, that was just a beautiful image of church and why it matters for us to be here in ministry together.

In the past few weeks since we’ve been – some of us – back in our sanctuary, where the AC is (yes) once again on the fritz, we’ve been following the story of the exiles who returned from Babylon to Jerusalem after the fall of the Babylonian Empire to Persia. We’ve heard about how this triumphant homecoming was in reality a lot less triumphant than they had envisioned. We’ve talked about the challenges they faced along the way as they tried to rebuild the Temple. We’ve talked about how we can relate to them, here at the end or not really quite at the end of our own Covid exile.

Today, we move on their story of rebuilding – together.

The Second Jerusalem Temple is, finally, completed. It takes 20+ years from when the first exiles arrive back in Jerusalem, but it does get built. Good! There’s a problem, though, because while the Temple is good to go, Jerusalem itself is still in pretty sad condition. It’s here that the scene shifts focus to a man named Nehemiah, a Jewish exile serving in the courts of Persia as the king’s cupbearer.

One day, Nehemiah gets some news. Some messengers come from Judah, and Nehemiah asks how everything is there. “Oh,” they say, “it’s not good. People are in trouble, the wall around Jerusalem has been broken down and its gates have been destroyed by fire!” (1:3)

Now, if you’re like me, you’re first reaction might be, right, we knew that already. Jerusalem was destroyed by Babylon in 587 BCE, Nehemiah lives almost 150 years later, the fact that Jerusalem is in ruins should be a surprise to nobody. It’s not entirely clear whether the message is that Jerusalem is still in ruins, all this time later, or some more recent disaster has befallen it, maybe related to the adversaries in the land. Either way, when Nehemiah hears this news, he sits and weeps.

Then, he starts to put together a plan.

Everyone knows you don’t just ask the king for a favor. But Nehemiah is lucky: he’s one of the king’s trusted servants, with closer access than most. So one evening when he’s bringing the king his wine, Nehemiah puts on his best sad face and sighs heavily. The king asks what’s wrong, and Nehemiah tells him about the state of his hometown. “What do you need?” the king asks, and Nehemiah says, “To go home and rebuild.”

And that’s what he does. He gets his travel documents in order and heads out with several members of the king’s guard on the way to Jerusalem. When he gets there he doesn’t do anything at first – he just gets the lay of the land. At night, he rides around slowly inspecting Jerusalem’s walls and gates.

Only when he’s collected all the data does he finally tell people what he’s up to. He gathers all the people in the city and he says, “Look at these walls! Look at these gates! Look at the trouble we’re in here! C’mon, everyone – let’s start rebuilding!” And the crowd goes wild. That’s my addition, actually, but the text does tell us that they say “Let’s start rebuilding!” and eagerly get to work.

The passage from Nehemiah 3 that you heard Cathy read today, where they actually get started building the wall, probably is not one that’s highlighted in your Bible as one of your top 10 most inspirational Bible passages. I get that. It is, quite honestly, kind of a boring list. One person worked next to this person, and this next person worked on the next section down. I edited down today’s reading, and the long version is even more boring.

BUT, if we pay attention, I posit that this is actually a really beautiful passage. That’s because when I say Nehemiah got everyone together to rebuild this wall, I mean, apparently, everyone. There are priests and Levites and local officials and goldsmiths and perfumers; people from Jericho, people from Gibeon, people from Tekoa. There are individuals and families – one official brings his daughters. There are people of status and people of less status, and they all work together.

I have to assume that not all of these people are especially skilled at wall building and repair. Some of them probably do bring some gifts and experience to the table. The craftsmen among them would have at least known something about working with their hands. The priests must have been another story. Masonry is not a class they tend to teach in seminary. This makes me think of my first summer at ASP (our annual Arlington Temple summer mission trip with Appalachia Service Project) when I had to learn to use a circular saw. The clergy are not usually the ones who bring those particular construction gifts to the table. But it’s part of the ASP ethos to empower people to do things they didn’t think they could do, and it was our project, so I did my part. And back in Jerusalem, it’s their city and it’s their wall, and everyone is going to be a part of the rebuilding.

And again, it seems to me like a beautiful image of what church should be like. Each one of us, contributing our God-given gifts, each one of us willingly learning and serving, all of us with something to share, all of us working together toward one common purpose of welcoming people with the love of Christ and equipping them to be God’s people in the world.

I think the church needs this guiding image in any time – it’s why I always begin volunteer reminder emails and offering moments by reminding us that we are the church together. But I feel like it’s an especially important image for us at this time, when “together” has taken on yet another meaning, with some of us in one place and some of us in other places. There’s the beauty of being one community despite some distance, and the danger that we won’t always feel like one. For some of us it might not be possible to give and serve in the ways we’ve always done before; some of us may now need to step in in new ways so that all the sections of the wall are covered.  (Let me take this time to point you to the worship volunteer signup out by the coat closet or in your weekly e-note – worship really does take all of us.)

And, of course, “church” isn’t just what happens here on Sunday mornings. If our mission is to welcome, call, empower, and equip people to be God’s people, that also happens beyond this time and beyond these walls, and that means all of you can be part of that, and all of you are needed – donating food, donating time, leading important discussions, leading mission projects, praying, spreading the word about what we’re doing here. As we figure out our new normal, as we do our own rebuilding, maybe the best thing we can remember is that we are the church together.

Not that this beautiful image is always perfect. It’s not, because communities are made up of people and we aren’t perfect. In Nehemiah’s case, conflict emerges between the haves and the have nots. This isn’t conflict with “enemies” in the land: these are one people, one community, the ones who are supposed to be working together. So yeah, it’s imperfect, but it’s real. And under Nehemiah’s leadership – which includes putting a swift end to any exploitation taking place – that wall is built in record time.

There’s a place in the New Testament, in the letter to the Ephesians, that we heard at the beginning of the service. It talks about how God is building two groups of people, Jews and Gentiles, into one. In this case a wall is being knocked down, instead of built. But then, as the author goes on, something else is being built in its place. “You are…members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:19-21).

It’s not really, you see, just about a building, or a wall, or a city. It’s about becoming God’s people, over and over again, as life changes. It’s about living into our mission, learning and living as followers of Jesus. It’s about worshiping God and loving our neighbor and inviting others in to do all of that with us. And it requires all of us, every last one of us, and all the gifts and skills we do and don’t have and everything we bring to the table. It’s about being the church, and we can only do it together.

Homecoming: Persisting

Scripture: Ezra 4:1-5; 5:1-2

In the news this week:

  • The Coronavirus Mu variant. Did you know we were on Mu already? I think it was about a month or so ago when I first heard talk of the Lambda variant, and I had to Google the Greek alphabet to make sure lambda was really as far down the list as I thought.
  • Some people are getting booster shots, while others are protesting the new mandate for federal workers to be vaccinated at all.
  • Pfizer might seek approval for vaccinating kids ages 5-11 in October, and for kids under 5 in November. I’ll believe it when I see it, though: parents of kids under 12 have been yanked around a lot on this already, believe me.

It feels hard to just keep slogging through all of this, doesn’t it? We all just want to get on with the new normal, whatever that looks like.

Back in July, when everything was looking better for a hot minute, we made the decision to resume in-person worship here on a trial basis in August and then regularly in September. And I thought, OK, it would be nice to do a sermon series on coming home. And then, as Delta started to surge and cases ticked up all over the country again, I began to waver – was it really going to happen? At what point was everything going to blow up again?

Well, I still don’t know the answer to that, but here we are, at least for now! It might be a little different than we once imagined, coming back, but here we are. Last week we heard the beginning of the story of another homecoming, the return of exiles back to Jerusalem after the fall of Babylon, and how that might not have been just like they always imagined either. Where we left off last week, they were getting ready to start doing what they came for: rebuilding the Temple, the place where they believed that God had once resided in their midst. Home once more, they are ready to get started making their “new normal” happen. Of course, it’s never as easy as that.

The difficulties that the returnees to Jerusalem face have to do with “enemies” in the land. It’s not 100% clear who these enemies are, but what it seems like is that after people from Jerusalem were exiled to other parts of the Babylonian empire, people from other parts of the empire were exiled to Jerusalem and the surrounding Judean countryside. We don’t know for sure that this happened, but it seems to make sense that it would have.[1]

It’s not even 100% clear that these people see themselves as enemies. This passage from chapter 4 starts with them seeing the returned exiles starting to lay the foundations of the Temple and asking to help. “Oh, great!” they say. “A Temple for YHWH! We worship YHWH too! This is great!”

It might be that they’re trying to trick them just to secretly derail the project, but maybe not. These people would have brought their own religious beliefs and customs into the land with them, but over 50 years or so, these beliefs and customs would have likely mixed with the Yahwism of the people left in the land and produced a kind of religious hybrid. That’s exactly what happened when the Northern Kingdom was destroyed – that’s why Samaritans became a different people than the Jews. So yeah, these foreign-ish people in Judah probably DO think that a Temple for YHWH is a great idea.

The Jewish exiles who have just returned, however, are not excited for the help. The way they see things, theologically, it was the worship of foreign gods that got them all kicked out of the land in the first place. They are not about to get mixed up with these people and their hybrid religion, and they’re certainly not about to let them be a part of building this sacred space. They tell their neighbors to get lost, and that, as I see it, is when neighbors become enemies. It’s at this point that we read, “Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah, and made them afraid to build, and they bribed officials to frustrate their plan throughout the reign of King Cyrus of Persia and until the reign of King Darius of Persia” (5:4-5).

And it works. For a time, work on the Temple stops.

For what it’s worth, the prophet Haggai credits the delay in building to the returnees not doing enough, rather than the interference of hostile neighbors.[2] But then again, there’s no reason it couldn’t be both, I think – it must have been easy to get discouraged in the face of adversity.

I’m feeling that these days, aren’t you? I’m feeling this as we’re presented with our own challenges in getting to our new normal. We don’t have human enemies trying to derail things – well, some of us might feel like we do – but we do have Delta, and now Mu I guess, casting their shadow of uncertainty on every plan we try to make. Will we be able to have Thanksgiving with our families this year? Will we be fully back online by Christmas? How long are the kids who went back to school really going to be in school?

Back in the spring the New York Times came out with an article about the way everyone seemed to be feeling, back then, as vaccines were just beginning to be widely available in this country: they called it languishing. “The neglected middle child of mental health,” they called it: you’re not really depressed, but you’re also not really doing well, you’re just kind of blah most of the time.[3] That’s languishing, and that’s what happens, for many of us at least, when the things that ordinarily help us thrive are put on hold for so long.

Of course, we haven’t all had the same pandemic experience – some of us probably have dipped into actual depression here and there, and others of us have found new ways to thrive – but this article clicked with a lot of people, and even though that was back in April, it seems applicable now – especially after that brief time this summer when we thought Covid might be winding down for good, and then it wasn’t. It’s hard. We are all tired. This new wave, and maybe the next one after that, are threatening to derail everything we’ve waited so long for.

Back in Jerusalem, it is the prophets Haggai and Zechariah who arrive on the scene with prophecies of encouragement. We don’t hear a lot of what they actually say here, though they do have books named after them as well. What they must do, though, is tell the returned exiles to persist. They are here for a reason, God has given them this work, so let’s get on with it! Yes, rebuilding is hard, yes, there were always going to be challenges, but it’s worth it, y’all, so let’s get back to it.

And it must be just the reminder the people need, because work on the Temple begins again.

Persistence, I think, is what we need in this stage of the pandemic. By persistence, I don’t mean doggedly sticking with Plan A no matter what happens – as the facts change, we respond, doing our best to keep each other and our neighbors safe, whether that means we meet here in the sanctuary or not. And I also don’t necessarily mean to persist by continuing to draw the hardest possible line on safety and not making any concessions and nuanced decisions about the quality of life – I think we all have to continue to make those decisions. What I mean by “persistence” is persisting in remembering what we’re here for. For the returnees, it was to rebuild the Temple. For us, well, we’re here to worship God: not just in this space but with our whole lives; we’re here to follow Jesus by welcoming strangers and serving our neighbors and loving our enemies and forgiving our friend and standing up for the vulnerable; we’re here to learn to listen to the leading of the Holy Spirit as we figure out how to do these things together as a community of God’s people and when we go out as God’s people on our own. This is the vision, this is what we’re here for: it’s in these things that we need to persist, even and especially when times get tough and we feel like we’re languishing. Because yes, it’s hard right now, yes, there were always going to be challenges, but y’all, God has given us this work, and it’s worth it, so let’s keep it up.

It takes a while, no doubt, longer than anyone had ever expected, but “God looked after the elders of the Jews,” we read (5:5) and that Second Temple in Jerusalem does get built. Then, the people can worship YHWH again in the ways they know how, and know that YHWH dwells among them once again – because, you see, it was never just about a building; it was always, always, about being God’s people in the best and most faithful way they could.

And no, the challenges aren’t over: The returnees will continue to face resistance as they rebuild, and we’ll likely continue to ride this Covid roller coaster for a while. But we don’t have to wait until it’s easy: the vision is there, the call is there, let’s persist in keeping it before us. Yes, it’s hard, but God has given us this work, of being God’s people in the best and most faithful ways we can. And it’s worth it, so let’s get on with it.

[1] New Interpreter’s Bible, Ezra.

[2] See Haggai 1.

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/19/well/mind/covid-mental-health-languishing.html

Homecoming: Returning

Scripture: Ezra 1:1-11

Back when this pandemic first started, we had no idea what we were in for. I remember that at first Bishop Lewis instructed all Virginia United Methodist churches to close their doors for in-person worship for two weeks. It quickly became clear it wasn’t just going to be two weeks, and then colleagues in my clergy circles began talking about our hopes of being back in the sanctuary by Easter. When it became clear that that was also not going to be the case for most of us, some started to talk about the idea of delaying Easter, celebrating it for real once the whole congregation could be back in person. Can you imagine the triumphant brass, the lilies, all celebrating not just the resurrection but our own coming back to life after Covid had been decisively defeated?

Well, luckily for us we didn’t delay Easter until we could be back in person. Here we are now, a year and a half later, just finally getting back to meeting weekly in the sanctuary for worship. But somehow the triumphant brass doesn’t feel so appropriate for the occasion now, does it? It is good to be together, it is good to be in this beloved space – and at the same time, things are different. Not all of us are here in this physical space (hi, Zoom folks). Those of us who are are wearing masks, waving at each other from a 6-foot distance instead of hugging, I’m up here figuring out how to use technology in a new way, and there’s still the uncertainty of what the rest of the fall might bring lurking in every conversation and decision. Covid has been far from decisively defeated. It all feels more tentative than triumphant.

These next few weeks as we both celebrate and process this strange homecoming, our (partial) return into this space, we’re going to hear the story of a homecoming from another time. I’m talking about the return of Judean exiles to Jerusalem after the fall of the Babylonian Empire.

Back in 587 BCE, Jerusalem fell to the Babylonian army after over a year under siege. The Babylonians destroyed the Temple and left the city in ruins. They also carted the Judeans – at least the wealthy, educated elites who wrote the history books – off to exile, scattered across the empire. During this time, a people who had always found their identity in their land had to think about what it meant to be a people outside of the land that had defined them.

Exile, however, does not last forever. Empires rise and empires fall, and in 539 BCE, Babylon falls to the Persian Empire, led by King Cyrus, who immediately announces that the exiles are free to return home. Did you hear the words he used? “The Lord (YHWH), the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judea.” He uses the authority of YHWH to assert his own authority over YHWH’s people. For what it’s worth, when he defeated Babylon, he also gave credit to the Babylonian god Marduk.[1] Cyrus is clearly a politically savvy kind of guy with a much different ruling strategy than the Babylonian kings who preceded him. Instead of utter subjugation, he takes the approach of cultivating loyalty in a more psychological way. Cyrus not only charges the Judeans to go home and build but even returns the vessels that Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar stole from it in the first place. Make no mistake – he is still in charge, this is not actual freedom. Still, the overjoyed exiles understand God to be working through Cyrus. “In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia,” the book of Ezra begins, “in order that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia.” In fact, in Isaiah, Cyrus is referred to as YHWH’s anointed, in Hebrew mashiach, Messiah. To the exiles – at least to the ones who tell the story – YHWH has clearly been instrumental in Cyrus’s victory over the oppressive Babylon, and all is right with the world again.

So you can imagine the triumphant return to Jerusalem: Judeans, long exiled from their land, streaming back together, arms laden with gifts from their Babylonian neighbors, singing, playing instruments, a new kind of Exodus, this time straight to the Promised Land.

Only that’s not actually exactly how it went. Instead, the return from exile happened in stages. First one group, and then some years later another, and then a while later another. Not everyone returned at the same time.

Not everyone returned at all. It’s been almost 50 years. Things have changed. People who were originally exiled from Jerusalem have died and children have been born. People have lives there now. Not everyone can afford to or is able to make the arduous trip home across the Near East. Yet they are still God’s people. It’s almost like one congregation in two parts, one coming back to its original holy place, the other still scattered.

And, of course, what do the returnees find when they make it back to Jerusalem? Ruins. Of course, they’re there to rebuild – but still, it must have been a shock, both for those who remembered Jerusalem in its former glory and for who were born in exile and literally never seen this city of legend before.

It’s been 50 years, and the people who return to the city are not the same as the people who left. I mean that both literally and metaphorically. As the saying goes, you can’t go home again.

I think we’ve all heard plenty over the course of the pandemic about how we can’t expect to just go back to “normal.” That pre-pandemic world is gone now. Our pre-pandemic selves are gone. On this 20th anniversary of 9/11, maybe there are some parallels there to how fundamentally things can change in a short time. For many (most?) of us here 9/11 is still a vivid memory and for some of us it’s something for the history books, but either way, this is not the same country, for better and/or for worse, as it was on September 10, 2001. You can’t go home again.

I admit that when people talk about not going back to normal post-pandemic I sometimes get frustrated, because it seems that no one is ever very specific about what that means. OK – what do we need to do differently, then? What can we not go back to? What’s OK to keep?

There may be some more or less universal answers to these questions – we will never live in a world without Zoom meetings now, for instance, and we could probably stand to reevaluate our healthcare system as a country having realized that health can never just be an isolated, individual thing – but the reason people are vague when they say that is probably because the answers aren’t the same for everyone and every place. Instead, this homecoming – such as it is – is a time to rediscover and rediscern our own identity.

I imagine that’s what they must have been doing back in Jerusalem, those first few waves of returnees. What aspects of their identity and memory will they keep, what parts are essential to remembering who and whose they are? Where will there be continuity in their story? And at the same time, what has changed over the past 50 years and how does that reality have to be addressed in the new lives and city and worship space they build for themselves? The Temple they build will not, for what it’s worth, be an exact replica of the one built by Solomon and his forced labor gangs 400 years earlier. One has to imagine architectural technology has changed in that time. This discernment, more than any physical redevelopment project, is the task before the ones who return home.

And what about us? What have we learned in this past year and a half of being physically apart that helps clarify who we are and what our mission is as the Body of Christ in this part of the world? Have we learned that our community is not defined by a building – even as we head into our own Second Temple redevelopment project? Have we learned that yes, we can worship anywhere, but we can only follow Jesus together? On the flip side, how has life changed in this time in a way that will and should fundamentally affect who we are and what we do going forward? Have we learned that some form of digital ministry is here to stay but we need to learn new forms of evangelism that aren’t just about people walking into a building; have we learned that we can keep serving and feeding our neighbors, but that this can manifest itself in different ways, and only with the contributions of the whole community?

You can’t go home again. Or you can – but it won’t be easy. We’ll get to that next week, some of the challenges the returnees run into as they attempt to rebuild. But God has been with them, in exile, on the journey, back in this place that is now both familiar and strange – and God will continue to be, into a future, even, that may feel more tentative than triumphant; forged by people tasked anew with figuring out who they are and what they do as God’s people in this ever-changing world.

[1] The CEB Study Bible, notes, p. 725 OT.

Adventures of Elijah and Elisha: Elisha and the Rest of the Story

Scripture: 2 Kings 13:14-20

It all started with a prophet who dared to speak God’s truth to a king.

We’ve spent the summer following the prophet Elijah and then his protégé Elisha on the adventures that ensued – because when you speak truth to power, adventures are sure to ensue. We’ve followed them from Samaria to Sidon and from Mt. Carmel to Mt. Horeb.  We’ve heard their stories as they experienced God’s protection and abundance and shared it with others, and as they stood up for justice and advised and anointed rulers.

Today, however, the adventures of Elijah and Elisha come to an end – or so it would seem.

In today’s passage, Elisha is terminally ill. King Jehu has by this time been succeeded on the throne by his son and then his grandson, and it is King Joash, today, who comes to pay his last respects. When he sees Elisha lying there he cries: “Oh my father! My father! The chariots of Israel and its riders!” On a surface level he is presumably mourning the loss of an invaluable military advisor, but there is also more to his words than that. Do you hear it? These are the same words Elisha himself cried out the same words on that fateful day when Elijah left. Long after he is gone from the earth, the connection between the two prophets remains.

Before he goes, Elisha has some final instructions for Joash. “Bring me a bow and some arrows,” he says, and Joash does. “Put your hands on the bow,” he says, and Joash does. Elisha clasps then his hands around Joash’s. “Open the window to the east and shoot,” he says, and Joash does. “That arrow,” says Elisha, “symbolizes your victory over the Arameans.”

Then Elisha says, “Take the arrows and shoot them at the ground,” and Joash does – three times.

Elisha gets angry. “Three times!” he says. “If you had shot five or six arrows, you would have finished the Arameans off, but now you’ll only beat them three times.”

These, as Scripture tells it, are Elisha’s last words.

They’re strange last words, aren’t they? Not what I would go with, if I got to plan my own last words. I would personally want to say something inspiring and uplifting, like John Wesley: “Best of all is, God is with us.” Or maybe something clever and memorable like Karl Marx: “Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough.” Or at least, you know, I’d want to tell my family I love them. Instead we’re left scratching our heads: Elisha never told Joash how many arrows to shoot, so how was he supposed to know? And what does shooting arrows out a window have to do with anything anyway?

It’s not really about the arrows, I suppose. The arrows are a symbol – perhaps of Joash’s half-heartedness in carrying out the commands of YHWH, on the battlefield and off.[1] Joash does as he’s told, but at least as far as Elisha is concerned, his whole heart isn’t in it. Last week we talked about God being involved in history and politics in the anointing and deposing of kings, but sometimes, it seems, even in Kings, the realization of God’s will in history is limited by our own human failings.[2]

With that, Elisha breathes his last. The story will have to continue without him.

Israel’s war with Aram continues, and as predicted, Israel defeats them – one time, two times, three times – never a definitive victory.

Soon, though, as it turns out, Aram will be the least of Israel’s problems.

As the story goes on, a new enemy emerges, one that is more of a threat than Aram ever was. The enemy is Assyria, the empire gaining land and power all over the Ancient Near East. Four chapters later in Kings, Assyria obliterates the kingdom of Israel, sending its people into exile across the empire.

For the northern kingdom of Israel – not to be confused with the southern kingdom of Judah, but for the northern kingdom of Israel – this is the end of the story.

And if you’re like me, maybe you come to the end and ask: did Elijah and Elisha make a difference at all?

If this is how the story ends, with the obliteration of the kingdom and people whose good our prophets fought for all along, whether with kings or against them – if this is how the story ends, then what was it all for?

It’s a question we might find ourselves asking in other situations where the story doesn’t turn out as we hoped. When we pray fervently and passionately for healing but the death of a loved one comes, anyway, we may ask: what was the point of it all? Was God even there, and did God even care? Did we make any difference at all? When we continuously give of ourselves and our wisdom to help someone else get to a better place in their life and they end up down the wrong road time and time again – what was the point? When we spend our lives fighting for peace and justice in some form and experience seemingly crushing defeat – what was it all for? I think there are a lot of people asking that question this week when after 20 years of nation building efforts Afghanistan fell back under the rule of the Taliban. Was it worth it? And for some, perhaps, where was God in it all?

Time and time again, no matter how much faith we have, no matter how much tireless work we put in, no matter how much we sacrifice, we are bound to come face to face with the reality that what we want – maybe even what God wants, if we can know that – inevitably plays out through the reality of human mortality and limitations and brokenness. Just like King Joash and his arrows.

And yet, for Elijah and Elisha, God was there in the story, no matter how it finally ended for Israel. God was there, speaking to them, leading them, healing, feeding, sending fire from heaven, causing injustice to be avenged. God was there, in the midst of famine and war and oppression and evil and loneliness and fear, and their job as prophets was to let people know. The end may not have been what they envisioned, but God was still there with them along the way.

And, God’s story does go on, in the history of the southern kingdom of Judah and its people, and their prophets, who will do their best to guide them and lead them in God’s name too. Sometimes, God’s future is too far away for us to see, but whole of God’s story is unfolding nonetheless.

I was in college when I came across a poem that has been life-giving for me ever since. You’ll find it sometimes credited to Oscar Romero but was a prayer by the Catholic Cardinal Dearden. To me it expresses this point, as well as so much of what we are about in our mission as a church:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.[3]

Elijah, as you may know, reemerges in history as an object of messianic hope. When John the Baptist arrives on the New Testament scene, he is said to be Elijah, preparing the way for the one who comes after him. In him, Elijah’s story lives on, paving the way for God to enter the world and history in a new way – a prophet of a future not his own.

As for Elisha, his story gets an epilogue, too. In the very next verses after his death, some people are burying a man’s body when a band of Moabite raiders comes through. In their hurry to flee, they throw the body in the nearest tomb, which happens to be Elisha’s. The dead body falls against Elisha’s bones – and immediately comes to life. Elisha’s power lives on, even after his story is over – this prophet of a future not his own.

Because the stories of prophets and kingdoms and ordinary people will come to an end, but the rest of God’s story is still unfolding – the God who was at work the whole time.  

[1] Choon-Leong Seow, The First and Second Books of Kings. New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. III, p. 238. (Seow does not actually espouse this view, but mentions it as an option.)

[2] CEB Study Bible notes, p. 592 OT.

[3] https://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/prayers-and-devotions/prayers/prophets-of-a-future-not-our-own

Adventures of Elijah and Elisha: Elisha and the Anointing of Jehu

Scripture: 2 Kings 9:1-13

Back when Elijah met God in the wilderness at Mount Horeb, back when God was present not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire but in the silence, back when Elijah was considering giving up the whole prophetic gig altogether, God gave the prophet three tasks. The first: to anoint Hazael king of Aram. The second: to anoint Jehu king of Israel. The third: to find Elisha son of Shaphat and bring him on board.

We know the Elisha part has been taken care of; we’ve been following Elisha on his own prophetic adventures for weeks now. The other two tasks were more or less put to the side after that – until now.

In 2 Kings chapter 8, Aram’s King Ben-Hadad gets sick. This is the guy Israel has been at war with off and on all this time. He gets sick and Elisha goes to see him. Ben-Hadad sends a man named Hazael as a messenger to inquire of Elisha whether the king will recover.

“You should tell him that he will,” Elisha tells Hazael, “but no, he won’t.” And he holds Hazel’s gaze for just a little too long.

Hazael gets the idea. He goes back to Ben-Hadad, tells him Elisha says he will live, and then smothers him with a wet blanket. I know – talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy. But the prophecy is fulfilled nonetheless: Hazael is now king of Aram.

Now, on to Israel.

At the beginning of chapter 9, Israel and Aram have been fighting again. Israel’s King Joram has been wounded and taken back to Jezreel to recover, and here, Elisha sees his opening. He calls a member of his company of prophets and tells him to take a jug of oil, head out to the battleground, and look for Jehu, a commander of the Israelite army. He should then take Jehu aside, pour the oil on his head, anoint him king of Israel – and then run.

The prophet does as he’s told. He finds Jehu in the camp talking with several other military officials. He says, “Commander, I have a message for you.” He takes him aside and pours the oil on his head and says “I anoint you king of Israel; you will strike down the family of Ahab and avenge the actions of Jezebel.” Jezebel – you’d almost forgotten about our evil Baal-worshiping, prophet-killing queen, hadn’t you? But she’s still alive, now hanging out in the palace as queen mum. Back when she helped Ahab steal Naboth’s vineyard, Elijah prophesied that this would be the end of it all – but once again, we’ve had to wait for the time to come.

The time is now.

The prophet runs.

A slightly stunned Jehu walks back to his fellow officers. “Shalom?” they ask. “Is everything OK? What was that all about?”

‘Oh, you, know,” says Jehu, “prophets.”

“Liar,” they say.

Jehu says, “He anointed me king.”

One wonders if this is exactly the news that the commanders had been waiting to hear.[1] They take off their coats and throw them on the ground before him. Then one of them blows a trumpet and they say, in unison, “Long live King Jehu!”

And a coup is set in motion.

It’s kind of weird, isn’t it, to think of God being involved in coups. Or maybe it’s not: maybe there are some of us who are comfortable with the idea of God hand picking leaders and putting them in power. I’m sure we can all think of some leaders God probably doesn’t want to be in power. And yet it gets theologically dicey, doesn’t it, to think that certain leaders might be endorsed by God? I know that back on the Sunday after the election last fall, I was preaching that we weren’t going to find our salvation in either presidential candidate. So I have to admit I wrestle with this a little bit, this idea of God being so directly involved in history and politics. I suspect this is one of those places where I have to recognize that an ancient Israelite’s perspective on YHWH’s role in national and international politics is perhaps somewhat different from my modern one.

As you may have figured out, being anointed king by a random prophet doesn’t actually put you on the throne. Jehu still has to claim what he now understands to be rightfully his. He orders a chariot and sets out for Jezreel. From the palace in Jezreel King Joram sees the chariot approaching and goes out to receive whatever news from the battlefield Jehu might be bringing. “Shalom?” he asks. “Is everything OK?” And Jehu says, “Who are you to talk of shalom?” And he shoots Joram in the back with an arrow as Joram flees.

When Jezebel hears of this, she puts on a full face of makeup and comes to the window. If she’s going to die, it’s going to be on her own terms. “Throw her out!” yells Jehu, and some of the palace officials do, and she plummets to the ground. Another prophecy fulfilled. Jehu then makes quick work of finishing off the rest of Ahab’s family – leaving no potential claimants to the throne behind.

The word of God for the people of God.

It’s a bloodbath. There’s no two ways around that. I’m sure that’s not the uplifting story many of you came to hear this morning. But it is there, in the Bible, in those parts we don’t usually read, and again, it might make us ask: is God really in all of this? Is this the way God wanted it to go?

There are never any easy answers to God-sanctioned violence in the Bible, and once again, perhaps the ancient Israelites who wrote this text would have answered that question differently than we might now.

But this text is Scripture, and that means it has some truth to tell us about who God is, and here’s where I hear that truth. All along, this summer, we’ve been hearing stories of individual people and their individual problems. We’ve heard about widows who are hungry and who lose their children and about foreign generals with leprosy and townspeople whose land is stolen. These things are ALL happening against a backdrop of national and international politics, but they are personal stories happening to particular people. And yet God and God’s prophets are also at work in the story advising on military strategy and deposing and anointing kings, because God cares about the personal lives and problems of all those people, but God also cares about the big picture, the leadership of nations, the policies they set and enforce. God cares, because policies and politics affect people’s personal stories, too, from immigration rules to economic policies to decisions about who gets punished how much for what crimes and who can marry whom. The political, as they say, is personal. It’s why I sometimes get so frustrated when people suggest that we should just all get along and put our differences of opinion aside like adults. Because when you’re talking about sports, sure. But when you’re talking about things that affect people’s real lives, those differences can’t just be shoved to the side: while surely none of us has the final word on what God’s will really is, God cares that justice wins out, and God is at work to make sure it does in the end.

It is hard to call what Jehu does justice. And in fact, in the end, Jehu doesn’t get a perfect report card from the biblical leaders either. He rules over Israel for 28 years, but, we learn at the end of chapter 10, “Jehu wasn’t careful to keep the Lord’s instruction with all his heart. He didn’t deviate from the sins Jeroboam had caused Israel to commit.”

Jehu is God’s choice, as the story tells it – but in the end, he’s no better than anyone else. Because in the end, again, we will never find salvation in any earthly leader.

By the time we get to the New Testament, the kingdom of Israel is long gone, and King Herod rules Judea as a puppet of the Romans. The people still hope, though, that one day God will restore Israel and the monarchy to their former glory. In a world that so often seems to be falling apart all around them, this is their hope – for everything to make sense again.

When Jesus arrives on the scene, some people think he is the fulfillment of that hope. Instead he tells them that his kingdom is not of this world. He speaks of the Kingdom of God, present within and among them, and he describes that kingdom not with images of swords and chariots and crowns but with stories of mustardseeds and day laborers and women baking bread.

Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, and yet it is also a kingdom where last will go first and the first will go last, where the mighty will be overthrown and the lowly exalted and the ones who are kept in chains will break free, and when he rises from the dead, a revolution is set in motion.

A far cry from Jehu, yes. Some different ideas about how God works in this world, yes. But a God, all along, who cares about both people and nations, politics and personal problems. A God, all along, who invites us to give our allegiance to the one true king, and to be part of building the kingdom only he comes to bring.

[1] Choon-Leong Seow, The First and Second Books of Kings: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections. New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. III

Adventures of Elijah and Elisha: Elisha and the Aramean Soldiers

Scripture: 2 Kings 6:8-23

How many of you have been watching the Olympics over the past couple weeks? The Olympics are always good for some stories of hope and courage and perseverance, maybe this year even more than usual. I read a story the other day about two runners, Isaiah Jewett, from the US, and Nijel Amos, from Botswana. Jewett was in the final stretch of the men’s 800 meter semifinal and in position to finish first or second when Amos came up from behind, hit the back of Jewett’s heel, and both runners ended up on the ground.  

It was an accident, but still, there was a dream down the drain, in just a split second. You couldn’t have blamed Jewett if he had yelled or caused a scene or just stormed off. But that’s not what he did. Instead he helped Amos up; they shook hands, and then Isaiah Jewett and Nijel Amos finished the race together.[1] 

Sometimes, a moment can be transformed when someone reacts in a way that’s not what you’d expect.

Last week in the Adventures of Elijah and Elisha, we heard the story of Naaman, an Aramean general with a skin disease who comes looking for healing from Elisha. Remember, one of the significant things about this story is that Aram, where Naaman comes from, has been at war with Israel on and off since somewhere near the beginning of the book of Kings, which really raises the stakes of this miracle. Well, today, one chapter later, Israel is back at war with Aram. This time it’s not going well for Aram, because every time the king decides to advance, God lets Elisha know and Elisha lets the king of Israel know so he can always successfully fend them off. He helps out so much, in fact, that the king of Aram starts to think there’s a double agent in the ranks.

No, one of his officers says, it’s just the prophet Elisha: that guy knows everything.

The king says, Then let’s get him.

In rides the Aramean army. Elisha’s servant gets up early the next morning and finds chariots surrounding the city of Dothan. And he despairs. But not our fearless hero: “Don’t be afraid,” Elisha says, “because there are more of us than there are of them.” To the untrained eye, this is a patently false statement, but Elisha then prays for YHWH to open his servant’s eyes and all of a sudden his servant can see fiery horses and chariots – remember those fiery chariots? – on the mountain beyond.

Note that this heavenly army doesn’t fight by earthly means. Instead, as the Aramean soldiers approach, Elisha prays for them to be blinded. His servant’s eyes had been opened, now the eyes of the soldiers are closed. In the New Testament, and especially in the Gospel of John, sight and blindness are always about more than just the physical ability to see – they’re about a person’s ability to recognize the truth of who Jesus is, who God is, and I’m going to guess that there’s a little of that going on here as well. The Arameans don’t know who YHWH really is or what YHWH is about to do – but they’re about to.

Once they are blinded, Elisha approaches them and says, “Oh, you’re looking for Elisha? I’ll show you where he is, follow me,” and leads them right up to the royal palace in Samaria. Their eyes are opened and there they are, enemy soldiers, at the mercy of the king of Israel.

The king’s instinct is to do what most kings would do: he’s going to kill them. He has the wisdom to ask Elisha first: “So, should I kill them?”

And I don’t know about you, but there’s a moment when I expect him to say yes. Finish them off. That’s what they do in the Old Testament, right? In the Old Testament God seems to be OK with Israel killing their legitimate national enemies; this is one of the ways the people understood God to be with them and fighting for them. Yes, kill them, Elisha will say. May their bodies wash up on the banks of the Jordan River like the bodies of the Egyptians on the shore of the Red Sea.

But he doesn’t say that. Instead the prophet says, “You didn’t capture them, did you? What gives you the right to kill them?” It’s a moment of humility for the king – this is not his victory to claim – and it’s also a moment that turns the tide of war toward peace, as the Aramean soldiers sit down at the king’s banquet table and feast.

This, we might say, is some positively New Testament imagery, right here in the book of Kings. It fits right in there with turning the other cheek and going the extra mile and if someone tries to take your coat giving them your shirt too. It’s civil rights protestors standing in front of fire hoses in Birmingham and facing tear gas in Selma and continuing to hold to their commitment to nonviolence. It’s the unexpected response that interrupts what’s happening and gives new possibilities to what might happen next.

There’s a danger in that, isn’t there? The danger is that you let people walk all over you. That they are more than happy to strike you on the other cheek as well. That they don’t put down the fire hoses. That the Aramean army goes home and tells the king well, the worst that happened is that we got a feast at the royal palace, so maybe we go ahead and try this again next week.

The unexpected, peaceful response doesn’t always change the moment, certainly not immediately, though it sometimes can in the long run. But in this case, we read, the Aramean raiding parties didn’t come into Israel anymore.

I suspect that there’s more going on here in any of these cases than just trying to be the bigger person. Imagine what it must have been like to be those Aramean soldiers sitting around that banquet table in the enemy capital. I imagine they must have been confused, on edge, maybe even humiliated. They came for military victory, after all, not for dinner. The feast, in a way, highlights how much they didn’t do what they came for. Like when someone tries to take your coat and you give them your shirt. Like when you peacefully risk your life for justice while others try to hurt you. It highlights the violence and injustice already at work in the system when you refuse to react how they expect you to, when you refuse to play along. Maybe that’s why Paul wrote in Romans “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads” (8:20).

There’s a conversation to be had here about loving your enemies versus peacefully heaping metaphorical burning coals on their heads, but that can be for another time.

Not every example of this involves fire hoses and bands of Aramean raiders, either. The other week, one of my Facebook friends, a former colleague with whom I had always gotten along, shared a post that was vaguely political, and while I was on board with the general idea there was part of it I didn’t quite agree with so I wrote what I thought was a fairly innocuous comment expressing my thoughts. I was legitimately surprised when a couple hours later she responded with several long and passionate paragraphs about how offensive my comment was to her. And to be honest, then, I was kind of offended by her offense! I felt like she had completely misunderstood what I was saying. And I could have said that. We could have gotten into it. But, after a few minutes to sit with it, I responded that I was sorry to realize how hurtful my comment had been, and that I had misunderstood the message of the original post. Because, whether I intended it or not, it was, and I had.

Then I held my breath, and waited to see what she would say. I braced myself for all the ways she would interpret things to still make me out to be a terrible person, and I imagined what I might say next, which might have been a little saltier.

Instead she wrote, “Thank you. It’s been a rough day, and I needed to hear that.” And suddenly all the further conflict that had been playing around in my mind fizzled out, because it was over.

I don’t tell you that to make myself the hero choosing peace: I tell you that because it was hard, and because my friend in the end chose peace too, and because it’s one of those things I’m going to keep in mind for next time when it’s hard again. We don’t even have to heap those burning coals: sometimes, a moment can be transformed when we choose peace.

Like two runners getting up and shaking hands.

Like protestors standing on a bridge in Selma.

Like a man with all the powers of the universe at his disposal dying on a cross.

Like soldiers feasting around an enemy table, and in the background, a prophet looking on, and smiling.

[1] https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/olympics/2021/08/01/isaiah-jewett-nijel-amos-tripped-800-meters-olympics-sportsmanship/5446921001/

Adventures of Elijah and Elisha: Elisha and the Healing of Naaman

Scripture: 2 Kings 5:1-17

One time a couple years ago, a friend needed someone at the last minute to babysit her two kids for the day while she went into the office. It was a Friday, my day off, so I offered to step in. I won’t say it wasn’t a big deal – Evelyn was still a toddler at the time and I was far from an expert at caring for one kid for the whole day, let alone three. But I did it and everyone lived.

At the end of the day friend came to pick up her kids up, and there was this awkward moment where she tried to hand me a check. I know she wanted me to know that she valued what I had done, that she didn’t take it for granted, and I appreciated that. And my friend has a good job, so affording it wasn’t an issue. On the other hand, I knew if I took the check, all of a sudden it was a business transaction, and I was no longer just a friend helping out a friend.

She wanted to show that she didn’t expect my charity; I wanted to show that I was able and willing to give it. I didn’t take the check, but before she left, she made me promise that I would let her return the favor sometime. Sometimes it’s hard to accept something for free.

In today’s reading, Elisha finds himself in a similar deadlock with a man named Naaman. Naaman has a skin disease, often translated as leprosy. But he’s not just any man with leprosy – he’s a Very Important man with leprosy, a commander of the Aramean army and held in high esteem by the Aramean king. What you need to know about Aram, the kingdom to the northeast of Israel which roughly corresponds with modern day Syria, is that it has been Israel’s main frenemy in the region since before Elijah entered the story. Sometimes they have a kind of tenuous alliance, sometimes they’re actively at war. So when the King of Aram sends his top general to the king of Israel because they’ve heard there’s a prophet who can help heal him, there’s a lot more at stake than just a healing here.

Imagine a top administration official with full motorcade pulling up at the house of a foreign dignitary. Now imagine all that dignitary does is send out a servant to meet them at the door and send them away. That’s exactly what Elisha does when Naaman pulls up with his horses and chariots and bearing expensive gifts – he sends a servant out to meet him and send him away again, with instructions to go bathe seven times in the Jordan River.

Naaman says, I came all this way for that?

Naaman, you see, is the kind of man who is used to personal service. In his mind Elisha is going to come out and attend to him. He is more than able to pay for what he is seeking. Yet here he is being told by a servant to go bathe in a river, when there are perfectly good rivers at home. He turns around in a huff.

His own servants, for what it’s worth, are like, well, it’s easy enough, and you’re here, you might as well?

I remember learning in my college microeconomics class about something called Veblen goods. Usually, given the law of supply and demand, when an item costs more, fewer people want to buy it. A Veblen good, however, is a good where the demand increases when the cost goes up, because it makes people think it’s better. Think of buying the brand name of something rather than the generic. That’s part of what’s going on here, I think. Naaman expects to get what he wants, and he also expects it to cost him, in money or effort or both. If it’s free, it must not be worth very much.

But that’s not how God’s economics works.

Naaman does go bathe in the Jordan River. And, lo and behold, his skin disease is healed. All of a sudden that little dip in the Jordan is worth a LOT to Naaman. And so he does what many of us, I think, would try to do: he goes back to Elisha and he tries to pay.

I can believe that Naaman’s heart is in the right place here. He is grateful to this prophet who, one way or another, is responsible for his healing. He wants to show that, to respond to what God has done in his life. There’s nothing wrong with that; I say something like that almost every Sunday during the offering – we give back in thanksgiving for what God has given us. But that’s not all that’s going on here, is it? Naaman is grateful, but he’s also a rich and important man. He didn’t come for charity.

It turns out, though, that God’s economy kind of runs on charity.

So there they are in that deadlock: Naaman, trying to hand over a big fat check; Elisha, refusing to accept payment.

I told a story at the beginning where my friend was the one who didn’t want to accept a gift, but I’ve been in Naaman’s place too. I think of the time that one of our homeless community members who we used to see at the church a lot when it was open handed me a 5 dollar bill and told me he wanted to buy me breakfast. I immediately felt uncomfortable: was I taking from someone in need? But the truth is if I dug down maybe it was about more than that. Maybe it was about how I saw the two of us: him, the person in need, and me, the person who could help. I have money, thanks, I don’t need to accept charity.

But again, that’s not how God’s economics works.

There’s a story in Acts (8:9-24) about a man named Simon who makes a living as a professional magician. He hears Philip preaching the gospel and gets baptized, and he finds himself impressed by the miraculous deeds the apostles can do. And then, when he sees Peter and John laying hands on people and they receive the power of the Holy Spirit he can’t help himself anymore, and he says, “I will pay you if you can give me the power to do that too.”

And Peter says, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gifts of God with money.”

Here is the Gospel truth, taught to us by Naaman and Elisha and Simon the magician: there is not one of us who is not in need of God’s grace, not one of us who can afford to buy it for ourselves. There is not one of us can who stand completely on our own; just some of us know it better than others. We want to prove our independence and keep the upper hand and stay out of anyone else’s debt, but God’s economy is one where we all freely give and freely receive.

Of course, there is more to the story, because as we already established, Naaman is the commander of a foreign army. God’s gifts, as it turns out, are not confined just to the people we think are the right people, whether that is the people of Israel or the Christian church. This is what we as Methodists call prevenient grace – grace working in the lives of us and others before we even know enough to call it that. But here, Naaman is about to figure it out, because when he steps out of the Jordan with his skin restored, he says “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” And when Elisha rejects Naaman’s offer of payment, Naaman says,” OK. Then give me two mounds of dirt so I can build an altar and sacrifice to your god; and I’ll never sacrifice to any other god again.”

Maybe he’s just still looking for a way to pay off a debt he can never really repay.

But on the other hand, maybe that’s all any of us charity cases can do: give what we have, accept what is given, and in all of give thanks to God who loves us and heals us and welcomes us all the same.

Adventures of Elijah and Elisha: Elisha and the Shunammite Woman

Before we hear today’s Scripture reading, I want to give you a little bit of backstory. You may remember that as we left off last week, Elisha has just watched the prophet Elijah be taken up into heaven. Elisha has received a double share of Elisha’s spirit and is duly recognized as Elijah’s true prophetic heir. Elisha stands on the brink of greatness, ready to do brave and miraculous deeds like Elijah once did.

Greatness starts now. In 2 Kings 4 we get a whole montage of Elisha’s miraculous works. Here he is making oil flow for a widow deep in debt. Here he is making poisoned food safe for his company of prophets to eat. Here he is multiplying loaves of bread so a crowd can eat and have leftovers.

One such miracle that Elisha performs involves a rich woman from the town of Shunem. She sees him coming and going on his prophetic business and starts inviting him in for meals as he’s passing through. Then because he’s passing through so much she sets up a little room for him so he can stay there whenever he’s in town. He wants to pay her back for her kindness, so he asks what he can do for her in return, and she says, essentially, I have everything I need. So he says to his servant, well, what can we do for her? And his servant says, well, she doesn’t have a son, so Elisha calls her back in and tells her that next year at this time she’s going to have a son. You might note that she never asked, but since as a woman in ancient times your social and economic status was more or less determined by the men in your life, we can take it that this is a welcome gift.

[Scripture: 2 Kings 4:18-37]

Several years, at least, have passed from Elisha’s last conversation with the Shunammite woman. The boy is older now, old enough to find his father in the field and complain that his head hurts. His father has him carried back to his mother; he lays down on her lap, and a few hours later, the miracle child is dead.

I love this story not for its subject matter but for its female protagonist and her no-nonsense approach to tragedy. She lays down her son and she says to herself, that man of God started this, and he’s going to finish it. She waves off her husband’s inane questions with a brusque “Shalom,” saddles up a donkey, and tells the driver not to hit the brakes until they’ve come to Mt. Carmel, where Elisha is.

Elisha’s servant comes out to meet her. He asks politely how the family is. I imagine her putting up her hand as she blows by him (“Shalom.”) She’s here to see the top guy. When she gets to Elisha, the first words out of her mouth are “Did I even ask you for a son?” Again: you started this, man of God, and you’re going to finish it.

To be clear, this isn’t the way people usually ask for a miracle. They say, “Just say the word, and my servant shall be healed” (Matthew 8:8). “If you choose, you can make me clean” (Mark 1:40). “Have mercy on me, Son of David!” But every once in a while, we meet someone in the Bible who frames their supplication as a challenge instead.

In Bible study last Sunday, we talked a lot about this Shunammite woman’s faith. She knows Elisha has the power to help, and nothing can stop her from getting to him. She knows the story doesn’t have to end in tragedy. This is, indeed, faith! But it’s not a pious kind of faith. It’s not a “Not my will, but thine be done,” kind of faith. It’s faith that says listen up, man of God, this is how it’s going to be. And honestly, I like it.

Pam Lassell shared a story as part of that Bible study discussion, about the birth of her son, Nathan. After a traumatic birth experience with their older son, Dave, everything with Nathan seemed to be going smoothly – until a nurse, also a member of Arlington Temple, came to them from the nursery to tell them there was something wrong. And Pam said that what she prayed at that time was “No, God. You didn’t give me this child just in order to take him away. No.” Not a pious prayer, not even an overtly desperate one, although I’m sure there was some desperation in there, not outwardly angry, although there might have been some of that, there, too; just matter of fact: nope, God, that’s not what’s going to happen here.

I’m not saying this is the right way to pray, or that this kind of prayer is foolproof. There are parents who lose their kids, and it has nothing to do with how they prayed or how hard. I just like the idea that we are allowed to talk to God, and God’s prophets, this way. In the Lassells’ case, thankfully, Nathan lived.

So I like the Shunammite woman, but I admit I find the character of Elisha in this story to be curious. Elisha admits, at first, that he doesn’t know why the woman has come to see him. He can tell she’s upset, he just doesn’t know why. But aren’t prophets supposed to know things like this? Why has God hidden this from him, as he himself puts it?

Even more interesting is the fact that Elisha’s first move is to send Gehazi to Shunem in his place. He tells him to take Elisha’s own staff and put it on the boy’s face. The Shunammite woman gives him some side eye on this one; she’s like, nah, Elisha, you’re coming too; but nevertheless Gehazi rides ahead and follows Elisha’s instructions and touches the staff to the child’s face – and he fails. Nothing happens. The boy doesn’t wake up.

Up to this point in the story, we have seen Elijah and Elisha do a lot of things. They have called down fire from heaven and spoken truth to power and multiplied oil and bread and split the Jordan River in two. They have been called and they have been brave and they have been tired and they have been scared. One thing they have not done, up to this point in the story, is failed.

So what? Is it all part of a bigger plan? In the Gospel of John, when Lazarus is sick, Jesus intentionally waits until he’s dead to go, seemingly to make a point. But Elisha doesn’t really seem to gain anything by waiting here. Has power gone to his head, thinking he can just send his servant on tasks that are rightfully his? Does he forget to pray? It doesn’t say he prays until later. Has he grown complacent?

I don’t know the answer, which is what makes Elisha so interesting here. What I do appreciate, though, is that even for someone like Elisha, sometimes doing God’s work involves a little bit of trial and error.

And I think most of us can relate to that, because honestly I think that doing God’s work and living faithfully probably involves some trial and error for us every day.

We don’t always have all the answers. And the Bible doesn’t always give us clear instructions. And that means we’re sometimes left to figure it out – what is the right thing to do, what is the loving thing to do, what is the faithful thing to do, how do I meet a need in a way that really makes a difference?

In seminary I remember reading an article about a man known as Million Dollar Murray, who lived on the streets of Reno, NV. He was an alcoholic who would go on benders and get arrested, sober up, and do it again. When he was too drunk for jail, he went to the emergency room instead. He’d get in a treatment program, graduate, and end up right back on the streets. This happened for ten years. At one point someone totaled up what Murray had cost the taxpayers of Nevada in medical bills, treatment programs, and other expenses, and it came to over a million dollars. And, at the end of the day, he was still homeless.

It was stories like this that led a couple of cities to try a different approach: instead of waiting for chronically homeless individuals to get their lives together, just give them housing. Having stable housing helps keep people out of the hospital, out of jail; it helps social workers know where to find them so they can keep appointments and receive services, it helps them start to regain the physical and mental health they need to make other lasting changes. And it’s cheaper. It’s not magic, obviously. But since 2006, when this article was written, a housing-first approach has become one of the dominant ways of addressing the reality of chronic homelessness in cities across the country.[1]

Why? Because the first way didn’t work, and sometimes to get it right you have to try again.

How many of us have realized, over time, that our understanding of poverty and how to address it on a personal or social level was wrong? How many of us have realized, over time, that our understanding of racial justice and injustice in this country was wrong or lacking? How many of us have realized over time that our understanding of prayer and what it’s for was wrong or lacking? It’s not that we didn’t care about doing right or getting it right in the first place – sometimes, a prophetic life of faith and service just takes some trial and error.

For the record, I don’t get the impression that Elisha just doesn’t care, either. He tells Gehazi to hurry. He gives him his staff. He has good intentions. He seems to think it’s going to work. It just doesn’t.

Due to the Shunammite woman’s persistence, she and Elisha arrive just after Gehazi, and that means Elisha is there for take 2. Elisha lies down on top of the child, and touches his hands, and prays – this time he prays. The boy’s skin grows warm, and he sputters, and opens his eyes. The tragic story has a happy ending – in the end.

Maybe this is a story Elisha will tell sometimes, to his company of prophets around a fire – the time he got it wrong, and had to try again. And he’ll go on to live a long and fruitful life in God’s service, mostly getting it right, and God’s love and power will continue to be known through him – because God will always let us try again.

The Shunammite woman, for her part, is speechless. She falls once again at Elisha’s feet. Then she gets up and picks her son – her miracle child, the boy who lived.

[1] https://housingmatterssc.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Million-Dollar-Murray.pdf