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Stoking the Fire

Scripture: 1 Kings 18

At the beginning of this month, the Hill family piled up our tent and sleeping bags and went out on our first official campout with my son’s Cub Scout pack.

One of the first challenges you face on a camp out, after you get your gear setup, is getting a fire going.

But not for my family.

While one other scout family was carefully collecting twigs, leaves, old newspaper, dry logs, and so on, piling them up, bending down, blowing and blowing and blowing, praying, hoping, and longing for the spark to take hold and the fire to roar so they can enjoy their dinner, my incredible wife, Yunkyong, pulled out her Korean style portable gas grill, inserted a canister, and click - FIRE - we were cooking.

On many a camp out, I’ve been where that other family had been though - trying my best, down on my hands and knees, hoping and tending and longing for a few sparks to turn into something bright.

And maybe, there have been times in my life where I have felt that way too - not just about a campfire - but about my heart, my soul, my relationships, my drive to get out of bed and get to work.

In our series this month, we have been proclaiming the good news that YOU DESERVE A BREAK, and have been offering some ways, drawn from the wisdom of our God, on what we do when our energy dips? When our personal flames that fuel our desire to impact the world and look with hope for each day… when they flicker, what do we do? What do we do to revive those flames?

Our scripture captures a moment in the story of God’s people when the flames of faith seemed to flicker and fade.

1 Kings is part of the history of Israel and Judah, two kingdoms. No longer was Israel one proud united nation - now, they had splintered and were struggling for leadership in a world of division and competition and danger. King Ahab had come to power, and he had married Jezebel, a cunning woman leader from a neighboring nation. But scripture is clear that Ahab was not really up to the task to lead God’s people - he kept messing things up.

In fact, most of the history of Israel in the Bible is a history of leaders who can’t seem to meet the expectations - they disappoint and stray and struggle. They forget who they were put in place to serve. Not that we know anything about that.

For King Ahab and his people, things were dire. Drought had come and was ravaging the lands. Without water, the earth could not provide food for the people. And they looked everywhere else for ways to end this drought - including SEEN ON TV solutions, miracle creams, self-help books, and even TV preachers - which led them to Baal. Jezebel encouraged Ahab and many Israelites to seek help, tend to their sagging flames, by worshipping a God called Baal.

Baal was a well known God - a popular God across the Middle East in that time and was believed to reward followers with rain and renewal. It was Baal, not the God of Israel, who brought life out of the ground, and if there was a drought, it meant that the people hadn’t been steadfast and vigilant and passionate enough in their prayer.

But as this religious movement took hold in sacred places and the people begin to look for hope away from God, Baal’s followers weren’t content to co-exist. They began to hunt down the prophets and priests of God and extinguish them one by one - so only they could be the solution the people looked for.

Only one prophet, Elijah, remained, and Jezebel wanted him dead.

In our scripture, Elijah summons the courage to call for a final showdown between the God of his Ancestors and this new power on the scene.

A battle between Gods. A battle between ideologies.

Which God will show up? Which God will prove to be the answer to the drought and to the people’s flickering hope?

The deck was stacked against Elijah. There on the mountain top, it was supposed to be Baal’s domain. Baal lived on the mountaintop. And Baal had the power of the King behind him - many more priests and followers than Elijah seemed to have. It did not look good for Elijah. The priests of Baal gathered together and they piled wood high and began to pray. They prayed and sang and danced. They even cut themselves and let their own blood drip, offering their very life to summon this god’s power forth. But nothing.

Elijah even joked about this - is your God asleep? Taking a nap? On the phone?

Elijah, though, did something different. He rebuilt an altar that had been there long ago, an altar built by his father’s father’s father, dug a trench around this site as if to signify how separate and holy it was, laid down an animal as an offering just as it was to be done in the temple, and then, perhaps to show off, had the people pour water - as precious as it was - all over the wood. And then Elijah prayed, “Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.”

Elijah didn’t just pray for God to show up - but for God to transform the hearts of the people whose hope and love and faith had nearly dried up.

And God answered, bringing down a blast of flame that rekindled the people’s knowledge of who they are and who holds them in their hands.

Just like King Ahab and the people of God in those days, I recognize droughts and dry-ness in my own life. I recognize when the embers of love for my wife, for my family, for my church, for my community burns down to just specks of light. And instead of turning to God, so often I turn to other things - other wisdom and other gods (with a little “g”) and other quick solutions, hoping that they will do the trick and turn those sparks into an inferno. *I go looking for love in all the wrong places.* So often, in the process then, those other things make me less than - they ask me of my life, like those priests of Baal, and I give over my very essence and trust and get little back in return.

Elijah’s prayer on that mountain reminded God and the people of God who were listening who they really were and why they were there. So often, when we get worn down by this world and our commitments and our cynicism, we need to be reminded how we got here in the first place. We need to be reminded of our baptisms and our hope and the words that God spoke into our lives at the very beginning. Remember who we are and who we belong to.

One of my mentors would often do marriage counseling for couples who felt like they had come to the end of their relationship, and Rev. Wayne would always listen carefully to their stories and then ask them if there was even a flicker or ember of their passion and love for each other yet. And if so, to begin by gently cradling it and blowing on it and tending to it, remembering how they fell in love and what they admire in each other - and with God’s help, that spark might burn like Elijah’s bonfire.

(Of course, it didn’t work for every couple or every relationship - sometimes, it is best to start over.)

That would be the image I offer you today, as you think about your life and those moments when you feel dry and overcome - to cradle that which still flickers in a world where immigrant children sleep on concrete floors, where neighbors are afraid to step outside their front door, where gun violence shatters homes and street corners, when we stumble around with heavy hearts for those we have loved and lost…

It takes courage to pray for God’s fire to ignite and renew you. It takes courage to get out of bed each day in a world of injustice and continue to work to do what you are called to do. Sometimes, it is only possible when we think about the step in front of us, the prayer that we will lift up, and the kindness we might offer to the person in our path.

Dorothy Day was a champion of the poor - and a follower of Christ. In a book of her writings, Robert Ellsberg says this about her and the little things she did to keep the fires aflame:

"…she did not expect great things to happen overnight. she knew the slow pace, one foot at a time, by which change and new life comes. it was, in the phrase she repeated often, ‘by little and by little’ that we were saved. to live with the poor, to forgo luxury and privilege, to feed some people, to ‘visit the prisoner’ by going to jail — these were all small things. dorothy’s life was made up of such small things, chosen deliberately and repeated daily."

May we tend to the little things - and may God set them alight, bright as an inferno, for the world to see and know God's love.

(posted June 24, 2019)

God's Restful Community

Scripture: Acts 2:1-21

Of the people I have a lot of respect for in day to day life, it has be to immigrants - those among us who leave one culture and society behind and make their way successfully into a new one.

Especially many of you right here in this church.

Of the many challenges one faces when moving to a new country, language is the hardest. And not just language - but the little pieces of specific cultural context that can’t be taught. For example, my wife, Yunkyong, shared with me that two of the hardest places to figure out in America were the bank and the Department of Motor Vehicles. (And I know some of us born and raised here in America have difficulty in those places too!) Both have their own specific language and terminology. They are scary places if you don’t understand what is being asked or what different terms mean.

So, it makes a difference when Yunkyong can go to a Korean style bank, even here in America. It just fits. It makes sense. It works the way she expects it to work. It feels safe.

Banks and DMVs are just one so many hurdles people who are new experience here in the States, that they have to figure out on their own, sometimes making mistakes. And sometimes dealing with neighbors that aren’t always that helpful.

Right now, in our cultural, there is a lot of fear about what it means to be multicultural. There is fear around difference. The internet has given voice to people with messages of hate. They each can have their own corner of the internet to ridicule and plan and organize and attack people who make them afraid - whether that’s Jewish people or members of the LGBTQ community or people of color or women. And that can make this world hard to live in for those affected and surrounded by that negativity and those threats of violence. It requires energy to get out of bed when you feel like someone is going out of their way to mess up your day. It requires mental and spiritual and physical energy to navigate spaces where we don’t feel fully welcomed. It requires extra work to walk into the banks and hospitals and DMVs and understand what is being thrown at you, hoping you are saying the right thing and showing up in the right place. And if banks and DMVs are difficult, imagine how hard church is.

We as churches, as Christians, as human beings have work to do. How might God be calling us to live? What should church look like?

And I think Pentecost gives us an image of how God calls us as church to take that step too.

The name Pentecost comes from a Jewish festival that took place 50 days after their celebration of Passover. It was a harvest festival and it commemorated God’s promise to renew and replenish the earth. It was a time of celebration for Jews across the Roman Empire, some of whom traveled out of their safe home bases into Jerusalem to celebrate God’s renewal and care and provision for them.

During this festival, the disciples had gathered, still piecing together what life after Jesus would look like. Their beloved teacher had been executed publicly and shamefully, but after being laid in a tomb with the stone sealing and silencing his voice, Easter morning brought exciting news - Jesus lived. God had raised Jesus to continue his ministry and continue to guide his followers into a new season of transformation. Jesus promised, before he ascended to be next to God and be available to them at all times, to send them some support - an Advocate, the Holy Spirit.

So, there they were in Jerusalem, as the city teemed with crowds from around the cities - immigrants who had roots in other countries and visitors who had come into town speaking other languages to celebrate this festival. The disciples were praying together and sorting things out and waiting, as Jesus had instructed them. It was safe in that room. They were united. They felt secure and out of sight. They didn’t know what to expect next, but whatever was to happen was to happen on God’s time.

And maybe they would have been just fine staying up in the room forever, but then something unusual happened.

Acts 2 says that suddenly a violent wind interrupted their comfortable community.

Artists through the centuries have tried to figure out how to paint or imagine the grand entrance of the Holy Spirit into this safe space. Some picture the wind like a cool and refreshing breeze on a spring day, but theologian Margaret Aymer writes that “the Holy Spirit proves not to be a quiet, heavenly dove, but rather a violent force that blows the church into being.” I like to imagine the disciples were knocked out of their chairs, tumbling around the room, toupees flying off their head, cellphones clattering and shattering in one fell swoop of chaos and confusion.

This violent wind does more than rustle the hair of the disciples - tongues of fire alight on each disciple. The disciples sense a mission, a compelling force, urging them to leave the safety of that room and emerge in the flowing throngs of immigrants and curious onlookers in the streets of Jerusalem. A crowd, hearing this violent wind, have gathered to find out just what the heck is going. The disciples, like a well-coordinated flash mob, begin to preach to those curious onlookers, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, of death conquered, of new life available, aided by the Holy Spirit to not just preach in their own comfortable language but in the language of the multicultural, international assembly of people of Jerusalem. No matter where the hearer was from, the preaching was translated instantly and perfectly by these unremarkable Galileean fishermen, tax collectors, and rabble rousers.

Already, the disciples have left the safety of that room where it was just them and their thoughts and their dreams about what God was prepared to do - and suddenly, they had permission to be brave, strengthened by the Holy Spirit, to do something they never thought possible.

There is power when we hear good news in our own language, and that day, those crowds heard God speak to them in their own language. God through the power of the Holy Spirit and bravery of those disciples met the people right where they are - in their confusion, their wonder, and their curiosity.

God could have chosen to whisper this good news to those disciples in that room and then let them piece it out bit by bit for a fee or over the course of a series of Sunday morning sermons or through an academic course. No, God chose to use those disciples to affirm the diversity and multicultural beauty of Creation, speaking every language under the sun, so that a new community shaped in the love of Jesus Christ might break forth on the earth.

In the words of Rev. Mindi Weldon-Mitchell, “God speaks in plural.”

When some of the crowds began to pushback, wondering if the disciples had been partying up in that room all night long, Peter explains that today was a day of the Lord, a day that the prophet Joel had spoken about, when men and women, young and old, free and slave would have the audacity to prophesy, to dream and vision. This new community would live up to that billing, daring to imagine a community that was more than safe but dared to live into God’s expansion dream for humanity where “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21).

A community of welcome for all.
A community of justice for all.
A community full of brave disciples who go beyond their comfort in extending God’s love to even those who are told they are unlovable.

In this series, You Deserve a Break, this is the foundation for how I imagine church should be - a restful community, a community of human beings living in the way of Jesus’ love so that everyone who is a part knows they are loved fully and completely and everyone is invited to live courageously for God.

How can church / community give us rest?

Restful community might look like this:

A community where we can be authentic about our struggles and pain and loss and discomfort. No fairness. No illusions. No hiding. And where God meets us in our language and our own context - right where we are. Where we do our best to welcome that violent rushing wind and tongues of fire.

A community that invites us to move from safety to bravery. God does not call a church into being that asks the minimum of us - God calls us to risk and dare and dream and vision. That’s freeing. I am not talking about a church that keeps us busy in pointless meetings or tiny, safe decisions - but a community that says go for it, living your call and mission compelled by the power of the Holy Spirit.

A community where the love of God moves us from exclusivity to inclusivity. From the upper room into the community. From afraid to open. Growing churches care less about their own needs than their neighbor’s needs. That’s a hard shift! A restful community is one that constantly challenges us to move from a love that is exclusive to a love that is ever more and more inclusive for those who are hurting.

And that is the kind of community that our world needs - that immigrants need as they face so many barriers, as those in the midst of grief as they feel encouraged to push down their pain and hide, as those who are cast out of their homes or experience the fear of violence against their bodies, as those who are going through doubts and struggles in their faith…. That is the kind of community that our society needs in the midst of fear and division - a place of profound welcome and love - the kind of community that God brought into being on Pentecost.

Several years ago, a pastor in North Texas was launching a new church.

He was very intentional about this process with prayer and discernment, learning about the target community to launch this new faith community, dreaming and building and visioning of what this church was going to be like. One of the questions he was asked early on was about the makeup of this congregation to be. Would they be a multicultural church? And I think he sat down with his team and wrestled with this question but realized how difficult it would be. He told the gathered number of people, “We don’t plan to be a multicultural church, because it is too much work.”

That answer sat with me for a long time, because as we have done church, he was right. Being a church full of people who don’t look the same, talk the same, love the same, serve the same, and even believe the same is really, really, really hard work. There is tension. There is difficulty. How do we gather people with different stories and ways of life and understandings of scripture and cultural gifts and make them one? How do we do that when as a society, considering the history of division around race and ethnicity and gender, don’t always do a very decent job? His answer was a safe answer - and while sometimes, we need safe spaces, especially in this present moment in our culture, more than safety we need bravery.

Is this who we are called to be? Yes, it’s hard work - but I am proud after 60 years we are working out our bravery. May we feel that violent wind moving us out of this room and into a beautiful, diverse, changing world so that all who call upon the name of the Lord might be saved! Amen!

(posted June 13, 2019)

You Deserve a Break

Scripture: Acts 16:16-34

After a long month in life and here in the church, this past week, I hit a wall. Yes, after two incredible memorial services, after a stewardship campaign, after working on our vision of where we are going, after preaching and hospital visits and meetings and connections out in the community, my body finally said, “That’s enough.” And even though I stumbled in here last Sunday and shared my message, I was sick and tired, quite literally.

What happens when I get sick is that this negative spirit comes over me - telling me that I should be ashamed that I am sick. That it’s my fault. That I’m wasting time. That I should be accomplishing more. That other people, other pastors in particular, are healthier than me and never take a day off. I should be more productive. I should power through this. I should go into work anyway. That if I rest, everything in the church and in life with fall apart - or worse, the church will realize that life without their pastor around isn’t so bad.

It is truly a negative spirit - I feel guilty for being sick, like my body is the only body in the world that gets worn down, that gets weighted under heavy loads, that sometimes is held back by my own limits or frailties.

Truly, I think any of these kinds of things, often which I call narratives - they are sort of stories that come from our culture and society and expectations of who we should be or how we should measure up - are truly demonic things. They do not come from God. Certainly, God doesn’t want any of us to be lazy and do nothing with our lives - but God also doesn’t want us to skip our days of rest.

But this is hard in this world in which we live. Some jobs and vocations are so competitive - some circumstances are difficult. Many immigrant families work almost everyday to try to get by on minimum wage or support several family members who can’t work. I remember a friend of mine who felt compelled to not leave work until her boss/supervisor left, afraid that her job would be in jeopardy. And even more, some people in our own communities are quite literally held hostage by their job - threatened to have their immigration status revoked, threaten by violence or abuse - if they do not work.

One of our partners here at our church that uses our space on occasion - the University of Maryland Safe Center, meets with individuals who are in human trafficking situations, who are forced to sell their bodies or denied freedom to leave abusive workplaces against their will. This is modern day slavery.

And I raise this all today - not to equate all the situations as equal - but to help us prepare ourselves for what our scripture speaks to us today and have us think about the chains, the bonds, the narratives, the mental pressure - that keeps us locked up, all in their various forms, and wonder together why God, God who came to us in Jesus, would desire us to be free - to hear the good news that we deserve a break.

In our scripture, Paul and Silas have come to the bustling, cosmopolitan city of Philippi.

Paul and Silas in the early days of the Christian movement like to move incognito - careful and strategic how they announced and presented their faith. Their Christian faith created lots of drama - for one, it was new and new stuff almost always makes everyone uncomfortable. Two - it challenged the status quo of temple worship. Followers of Jesus no longer partied like everyone else - they lived differently. They didn’t follow the Roman holidays or the practices of the bosses and those in charge. That made them stick out. It made them a target.

Paul and Silas are apparently minding their own business - they had just as they arrived to the city, shared the good news with a group of women who received it with excitement. The good news almost always goes to women first - to those who are on the bottom - to those who are struggling. And this new blossoming community of people who were loving each other, hearing more of the stories of Jesus, and praying together was growing.

Until this… girl - scripture says a slave-girl - but I’m trying to follow how some historians encourage us to talk about this, a girl, a beloved child of God, who was enslaved. Not by luck or by chance - but men who were using her and exploiting her for their own wealth. She was being trafficked.

Sometimes, those who are the most stressed, the most worn out, the most bound up by society recognize freedom. We recognize a glimmer of hope in the midst of our bonds. We recognize it in others - others who have that freedom - and we go, I want some of that. Often, that is how the first century church grew and how a lot of churches grow in our communities these days.

This girl had a gift - a gift of divination - which is a gift to see. To see Paul and Silas not just as ordinary men, trying to keep a low profile on their way to prayer - but as men who knew a way to freedom. She shouts at them, time and time again, as they pass through the marketplaces, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”

I think we should always be uncomfortable about slave talk in the bible, because in American history, we have a lot of baggage and history there, most of which we have not really dealt with. Being a slave of God is described as the opposite of being enslaved - it is freedom. It is release. It is rescue. It is hope.

Paul gets tired of her shouting - and maybe in a bout of frustration - he calls the demon out of her. And suddenly, the girl is freed. She is freed in such a way that she no longer has value to her bosses, to her slave-masters, who cannot control or rake profits from her. Suddenly, she is not a product to exploit but a fully human being, a full child of God, who cannot be manipulated or abused or used. I am always amazed at the way the New Testament stories remind us that liberation was not really good news for those on top with all the power - but for women, children, low wage laborers, those who were exploited, those who were seen as a means to an end. Salvation was a pathway to freedom in all aspects of life.

For Paul, this must have been another realization that the power that Christ made available to him and to all who followed after Jesus was powerful stuff. Anne Lamott describes as a reminder when we gather to worship, to love each other, offer blessings to each other, to do this mysterious gathering around the table that we are playing with dynamite.

But the slave-masters, those with a lot of power, those who had a nice setup going on, those who liked the status quo and the money they were making off of this girl who they had enslaved to their whims, were not happy with these two rabble rousers. Who dared to give freedom to someone who did not deserve it. 

Paul and Silas are beaten and tortured, tossed in jail, the jailer gloating over his newest charges. That image of Paul and Silas, two innocent men in jail, draw us to think about this era of mass incarceration - of so many people locked away in prisons in our country, their records and their bodies and their minds altered forever. We think about movements - of civil rights - of leaders protesting for change, making those in power so scared that they lock them up to prevent them from upending status quo.

But Paul and Silas do a remarkable thing in jail - rather than become afraid, they rely once again upon the liberty that comes through Christ and they turn this place of oppression into a place of worship. Their jail cell becomes a sanctuary to lift their praises to God. And in the midst of their singing and praying, God brings the thunder - shakes the very foundations of that prison and rips open that jail cell that dares to keep captive God’s trusted servants.

In my imagination, God literally brings down a divine fist to smash open those prison bars to free his beloved.

And in God’s peculiar good news, the jailer, who once was there to torment and torture Paul and Silas, sees and discovers liberation too - a way of life that no longer involves locking people up but experiencing freedom in Christ. Notice that the scripture says - “everybody’s chains came lose”. Prisoners and jailers alike. What an image of the kingdom of God - of God’s way for us! Freedom for everyone!

The good news for us in our internal narratives, in our broken relationships, in our workplaces that make us sick and tired, and in this world where injustice and imprisonment and enslavement are still far too common, especially for women, children, and the poor - God proclaims a break. Christ announces liberation for all who feel jailed. We join with Paul and Silas and gather together in our jail cells and sing in response to this liberty and freedom discovered in our loving Creator. We sing for a new world. We sing for love. We sing for healing. We sing for abundant life to begin in us and spread in every corner of our community.

Why do we sing? We sing because we’re happy - we sing because we’re free. For the eye is on the sparrow, and I know God watches me.

God’s disruptive love offers us freedom each day and hands us the reigns, like Paul, to smash the injustices we see - if we dare.

This morning, as a church, I want us to give ourselves permission to smash those things that are binding us up and holding us back.

What do you need to go home and smash today in your life?

It might be a small thing - it might be a large thing. It might be going home to cut up credit cards that you don’t need and tempt you to buy more. It might be breaking off a relationship that is unhealthy and causing you no end of trouble. It might be shutting down your twitter or facebook to focus more on what is going on right in front of you. It might be to prepare the courage to tell your boss that you can’t stay late for your own health and your need to breathe. It might be something else in your life that is keeping you locked away.

Today, your pastor, your church, and God gives you permission to take that step. And we will back you up.

It might be that you need to ask God to do some of that work today - to step in and shake your world with a holy earthquake that breaks open prison doors. God is countering the narratives that make you feel guilty or ashamed to take a break or a day off or stay in bed under your covers as you grieve or as you hurt. You are enough. You are loved. You are worthy of that day off. You were not made to only work. You were made to love and be loved.

After worship today, we are setting up a piñata - maybe to continue our celebration of our 60th birthday as a church - but also to do some therapeutic fun self-care. If you need to smash something today, take a broomstick or whatever, imagine that piñata being that thing that needs to get smashed, offer it to God, and then whack away.

Finally, church, we have a mission in this work culture and in this world to proclaim freedom. To practice freedom. To honor freedom. To proclaim this day of rest for all who can hear. We have a mission to proclaim this and even shape the places where we work and the communities in which we live. We have a mission to offer rest to those who don’t believe it is possible in their lives. I want to be a church like Paul and Silas that other people see and say we need some of that. It might take risk - it might mean we need to go into marketplaces and business places and in halls of power and proclaim liberation and release.

Aboriginal leader and activist Lilla Watson wrote, ““If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

If one of us in our neighborhood is not free, then none of us are free.

God says to us all, “You deserve a break.”

Thanks be to our God of liberation for this good word!

(posted June 2, 2019)

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