Sunday, November 26, 2017

God With Us

King Nebuchadnezzar made a golden statue whose height was sixty cubits and whose width was six cubits; he set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon.

Accordingly, at this time certain Chaldeans came forward and denounced the Jews. They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, “O king, live forever! You, O king, have made a decree, that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, shall fall down and worship the golden statue, and whoever does not fall down and worship shall be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire. There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These pay no heed to you, O king. They do not serve your gods and they do not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”

Then Nebuchadnezzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought in; so they brought those men before the king. Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods and you do not worship the golden statue that I have set up? Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble to fall down and worship the statue that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire, and who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?”

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”

Then Nebuchadnezzar was so filled with rage against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that his face was distorted. He ordered the furnace heated up seven times more than was customary, and ordered some of the strongest guards in his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and to throw them into the furnace of blazing fire. So the men were bound, still wearing their tunics, their trousers, their hats, and their other garments, and they were thrown into the furnace of blazing fire. Because the king’s command was urgent and the furnace was so overheated, the raging flames killed the men who lifted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. But the three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell down, bound, into the furnace of blazing fire.

Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up quickly. He said to his counselors, “Was it not three men that we threw bound into the fire?” They answered the king, “True, O king.” He replied, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god.” Nebuchadnezzar then approached the door of the furnace of blazing fire and said, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!” So Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out from the fire. And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counselors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men; the hair of their heads was not singed, their tunics were not harmed, and not even the smell of fire came from them. Nebuchadnezzar said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him. They disobeyed the king’s command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that utters blasphemy against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins; for there is no other god who is able to deliver in this way.” Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the province of Babylon. Daniel 3:1, 8-20 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Our story today is one of the stories about God’s people when they were in exile—after the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed and the remaining people had been removed from their country and forced to live in Babylon, a foreign country.

Last week, we heard from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah told God’s people that they should invest in the welfare of their new land. That, even though they were exiles in Babylon, they should “move into the neighborhood” and become part of it. That their new country’s welfare would become their welfare.

Today, we turn to the book of Daniel. This is a little bit later in time than Jeremiah. The book of Daniel is a collection of stories that was intended to tell people how they should live while they were in exile. 

It’s what we call “resistance literature.” These are stories that meant to help God’s people resist a culture that was going in a place or in a direction that they didn’t want it to go.
Our story today is about three young men. Does anyone remember their names? (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego)

So, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had followed Jeremiah’s instructions. They had “moved into the neighborhood” and had become leaders in the government. 

We heard the story earlier. But, let’s watch a short video that gives us a quick summary of their story.

The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is the story of what to do when someone says you can’t keep the first commandment. (Do you remember what the first commandment is?)  

One of the things we hear in the story is that Daniel uses humor as a weapon. Daniel recognizes that humor and satire can be one of the most important tools we have that can bring life out a situation that feels desperate. When it feels like there’s no hope.

We see this in our story today.

First, there’s the goofy orchestra. 

Then, there’s the statue, which is 90 feet high and only 9 feet wide, like a 90 foot tall toothpick. Also ridiculous.

And, then, there’s King Nebuchadnezzar. (Can you say that three times fast?)

Now King Nebuchadnezzar is kind of a buffoon. He’s really full of himself. He insists that the people bow down and worship his statue. When Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego don’t, well he gets really angry. So angry, in fact that he has the fire increased 7 times. 
Even with this, he’s still not able to be effective against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

When we look at Nebuchadnezzar and how ridiculous he is, we start to roll our eyes. As soon as this begins with someone who is a weighty figure the tide has already begun to turn. We—like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—might feel threatened, but as soon as we can roll our eyes, we realize that we’re not really held captive. That we can have a different point of view. This is what Daniel does so well. He uses humor and satire to show the people of Israel that they aren’t really held captive. He uses it to give them hope. It is then that the people begin to resist.

This is what Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego do. They are prisoners of conscience. Their refusal to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s statue is an act of civil disobedience.
They refuse to renege on their basic faith commitments. They are not willing to sell out their most basic convictions. 

Do you hear what they say? In verse 17, they say to the king that if God is able to rescue them, then let God rescue them. And, then, in verse 18, they say that if God doesn’t, they still will not serve Nebuchadnezzar’s gods or worship the ridiculous statue he has set up.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego don’t know where this will lead, but, they know they must not let go of their most basic commitment—and that is to worship the one true God.
This is important for us to hear. God does not spare us from the fire. But, God is with us in the fire. And God’s life-giving purposes can be accomplished in and with and through the fire. God is faithful even in the midst of trouble. 

How is God’s presence with you in times of trouble? 

When have you been in your own “fiery furnace”? 

When have you been in a tough situation when things were not going very well?

Have you ever gotten in trouble?

Turn to your neighbor for a few minutes to share your response or responses to any or all of these questions. Be sure to give your neighbor a chance to share, too. And, if you prefer not to share, you should feel free to think for a few minutes about how you might answer these questions.

I’m wondering if, as you were sharing or thinking of your story, how many of you mentioned others—perhaps friends or family—who helped you get through your own times of trouble? Or your own “fiery furnace”? Or the people who helped you through a tough situation when things weren’t going so well? Or, even when you were in trouble?

Today is the first Sunday in Advent. Advent is the season when we remember God with us. It’s the time when we hear how Jesus put on flesh and moved into the neighborhood. It’s the story of the incarnation.

God getting born in a barn reminds us that God shows up in even the most forsaken corners of the earth, even in the midst of a fiery furnace.

Everything in our society teaches us to move away from suffering. To move out of neighborhoods where there is high crime, to move away from people who aren’t like us or who don’t look like us. To move away from people who we perceive, perhaps, as weaker or not as smart or good looking or wealthy or whatever other reason we come up with to keep us apart from them or afraid to be in relationship with them.

But the gospel calls us to something altogether different. Throughout the history of the church, there have been movements of believers who have gone to the desert, to the slums, to the most difficult places on earth to follow Jesus.

As followers of Jesus, we are to laugh at fear, to lean into suffering, to open ourselves to the stranger. To be the presence of Christ for those who need help or for those who are in trouble.

For some, like Staff Sergeant Cory Hinkle, it may mean an incredibly heroic gesture. 

Staff Sgt. Hinkle, who is an Iraq combat veteran, was on his way home from the National Guard base in Charlotte, NC, when he witnessed a head-on collision right in front of him.

When he saw one of the cars begin to smoke, while others might have run in the opposite direction, Sgt. Hinkle ran toward it. The driver of the vehicle, 28-year-old Brandy Guin, was having trouble getting out because of a broken ankle she had sustained in the collision.

Sgt. Hinkle charged ahead. And, even when the shocks started to explode and hot debris was flying everywhere, he shielded her with his body and said, “It’s going to have to go through me to get to you.”

And although he was hit in the ankle by a piece of debris, he saved this mother of two. 

He said that he wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.

But, being Christ-like in our world, doesn’t always mean engaging in life-threatening heroic gestures.

Like the story of this young college student. According to his roommate, who posted this picture online, this young man calls home every week to help his younger sister with her high school algebra homework.

Or perhaps it's the story of this cashier in a Walmart in Mississippi that was posted on Facebook by a woman named Spring Bowlin.

When the cashier gave the elderly man in front of Miss Bowlin in the checkout line, he looked back at her apologetically and started to take handfuls of change out of his pockets. According to Bowlin, he miscounted and started to get flustered, saying, “I’m so sorry.” She noticed that his hands and his voice were shaking.

Then, the cashier offered to help. Bowlin wrote, “This beautiful cashier takes his hands and dumps all the change on the counter and says, ‘This is not a problem, honey. We will do this together.’”

Once the transaction was finished, Bowlin thanked the cashier for patiently helping this elderly man. The cashier shook her head and replied, “You shouldn’t have to thank me, baby. What’s wrong with our world is we’ve forgotten how to love one another.” 

And, then there’s the story of Deputy Matt Holman and Robert Morris. Let’s watch their story.

God came to earth to be with us. God does not promise that our lives will be free from hardship. When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down to the statue, they made a stand for God, knowing that the punishment for such actions was death. They faced the possibility of dying together not knowing whether God would deliver them. What they did know, though, is that, no matter what happened, God would be with them. 

In the same way, no matter the circumstance, we, too, know that God will be with us. Often we experience this through other people. God sends many helpers to help us in times of need. When family or friends or, sometimes, even complete strangers walk with us through hardship or difficulty, they help to share our load. And we are comforted by their presence. 

We, too, can provide this same ministry of presence to others who are facing their own challenges. To be with them. In the same way that God came to earth to be with us.

We do this because God loved us so much that God entered into our world to be with us, even though it meant experiencing betrayal, hunger, pain, and death.

God knows hardship. God knows our hardship. And God promises to be with us. 


In this Advent season as we begin this first Sunday in the fire, may all of us know that God is present with us in the fires of our lives. That God is faithful to us in the midst of trouble. May we help others to know this in our Christ-like presence for them. And may this story of hope be encouragement for us in the midst of difficult times. 


Preached November 26, 2017, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY
1st Sunday in Advent
Readings: Daniel 3:1, 8-30; John 18:36-37

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Hope in Exile

These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord.

For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from our Lord, and Savior, Jesus Christ, who has died, who has risen, and who will come again. Amen.

We begin today with a video

What does it feel like to be a refugee? To be a traumatized community that has lost everything? Loved ones. Homes. Beloved city and country. Language. Culture. The familiarity of ways to express one’s own religion, along with places of worship. Everything. Lost. 

Like the Syrians in this film who have been forced to flee their countries due to unsafe circumstances. Or those from Afghanistan or Pakistan. Or Lebanon or Iran. Or from Central America or Mexico. Or Ethiopia or South Sudan. Or, more recently, the Rohingya people from Myanmar. The UN estimates that 65.6 million people are displaced worldwide. 65.6 million. Every minute, 20 more are forcibly displaced as a result of conflict or persecution. By the time I finish my sermon today, some 200 more people will be displaced. Losing everything. Refugees in foreign lands. People in exile. Exiled in a foreign land.

As our Jeremiah text opens today, this is the same experience that is happening to the people who are Abraham’s descendants. We are in the thick of the drama. Amos, who we heard last week, is one of several prophets to predict the fall of the northern kingdom to Assyria. Their predictions have come true. The northern kingdom has fallen and been destroyed.

In the southern kingdom, the remaining remnant in Judah watch as the Babylonians make massive inroads into their country. Closer and closer they get to Jerusalem. Although the city is still functioning, it is operating under duress. The enemy has already taken the king and some of the people off into exile. Within another few years, Jerusalem will fall.

It is to these people already in exile that the prophet Jeremiah sends the letter that is our text this morning. It is a surprising letter. After all this time that God has insisted that the people of Israel stay apart from other peoples, that they not intermarry, or take on surrounding cultures or worship other gods, one would expect to hear the same in Jeremiah’s letter. One would expect a word that is reassuring. An encouraging word. Be faithful. God will bring you back. Resist the culture where you have been exiled.

Instead, this is God’s word given to them through Jeremiah: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord on its behalf. For in its welfare, you will find your welfare.” 

It’s not an instruction to rebel. But an instruction to keep the faith and live deeply into the place where you’ve been sent. To be good citizens in exile. Because you will be there for a long, long time.

As we hear this story. As we watch the video and hear of refugees across the world in exile. As we sit here in relative safety and comfort, it’s perhaps hard for us to imagine or fully understand what it means to be in exile. To have lost everything. To be fully dispossessed of all we own. Of country. Of culture. Of lifestyle.

Yet, I wonder, if we think hard enough or look deep enough into our own context, we whether we can see or think of many in our own place--our own “city” if you will--who are in exile. 

Let me share with you my experience this week of what exile might look like here in northern Kentucky. 

On Tuesday afternoon, I received a call here at the church from a young man. I will call him David. Please know that I have his permission to use parts of his story this morning.

The call was like many calls we receive here at the church. He was calling because his water had been turned off. He had been unable to pay his bill this month. He had called Eastern Area Ministries and, because they had already provided assistance to him a few months ago, they could not help him this time. Their rule, like many agencies in our area, only allows assistance once in a 12-month period.

I asked how much he would need to get it reconnected. He told me. Four hundred two dollars and 90 cents.

Now, normally, if we know this person, we will try to figure out a way to help them. We have a Good Samaritan fund here at church. Sometimes, if it's a small amount, we can help. But this fund has a total of $600 in it. Four hundred dollars would nearly deplete it. There was no way we could help him, at least not fully. And, besides, we didn’t know him.

I asked David to tell me more about himself, particularly, about how his financial situation had become so dire. He told me this incredible story. About how, 2 years ago, out of the blue he had received a call from a old friend of his, begging him to take in and care for her son. (We’ll call her son Noah.) How she had found out that her husband, Noah’s stepfather, had been physically abusing him while she had been away at work. That this abuse had been reported to the authorities. And that they were now threatening to take Noah into the foster care system and would David please take him in so that he wouldn’t end up in this dead-end system.

Now David and his partner had no plans for a family. They were living a pretty good life. Able to go on good vacations, to live well, to even buy a used Mercedes. 

Yet, after hearing his friend’s story and talking it over, they finally agreed. Within a week, Noah was living with them. And within a few more weeks, they found out that this 4-year-old little boy had not only been physically abused, but that he had been sexually molested, as well.

David told me that, because of all of this abuse, Noah was traumatized. He required extensive medical and psychological treatment, which required endless visits to doctors’ offices. Parenting this deeply traumatized little boy David required him to leave a good-paying, full-time job, to reduce his hours to part-time and to take a hourly job where he made much less money. It was this loss of income that had eventually brought him to this place. To this place of exile.

It was an extraordinary story. In some ways unbelievable. It’s hard sometimes, especially when we story after story like this, not to become cynical. To not believe this story. To wonder how a mother could possibly miss the signs of abuse. To wonder how someone driving up to our food pantry in a Mercedes could possibly need our services.

It’s hard not to judge, isn’t it? 

Over these past few weeks surrounding the celebration of the Reformation anniversary, I’ve had the opportunity to hear the Bishop speak a few times. Each time he has mentioned how he used to ask candidates for ordination what the first of Luther’s 95 theses was. (I have to say I’m very glad he had stopped asking that question by the time I was ordained.) He has been surprised at how few have known the answer.

Thesis No. 1: “In saying, ‘Repent,’ our Lord and Master Jesus Christ wanted the entire life of the faithful to be one of repentance.” 

When we judge others without fully understanding their situation or having lived it, we sin. When we become cynical and refuse to believe their story, we sin. Over and over we look at others who are not like us and we fail to see God’s image in them, to see their dignity and their worth. And, we sin. Over and over, we sin. And over and over we are called to repentance. To turn away from these judgments and these thoughts and to begin to see in the eyes of people like David, or Noah’s mother, the image of God. A person, just like us, created in God’s image, who is just as deserving of and needing of God’s grace and forgiveness as we are. A person, just like us, for whom Christ died on the cross.

It is then, after we have repented that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can begin to change. To move from a surface relationship into a deeper place. To believe their story, to walk beside them, to experience what their life is like, to accompany them in exile. To be Christ-like. Even if we can’t do this with refugees from Syria or Afghanistan or Sudan or any of the other countries around the world, we can do it here. We can seek the welfare of our city. Because it is in our city’s welfare, that we, just like the exiled Israelites, will find our own welfare. 

Who is the refugee in our neighborhood? Who around us is in a place or time of exile? Who in our community is experiencing displacement? How are you seeking their welfare?

It took us four days. Four days to find the $400, to push back against the water company bureaucracy that has developed to protect them from a few dishonest people and which, in return, punishes the vast majority of those who are honest. Four days to develop a plan together to improve the financial condition of David and his family and, finally, on Friday evening, to get the water turned back on. By the end of that four days, we were friends. By the end of that four days, in David’s welfare I found my own welfare. And, together, we found hope. 

“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord,” writes Jeremiah. “Plans for your welfare and not for harm. To give you a future with hope.” This was God’s promise for the exiles of Jeremiah’s day. It is God’s promise for the exiles of our day.

From this point forward, may we open our eyes, see them among us, believe their stories and walk beside them, and together, in Christ, find a future with hope.


Preached November 19, 2017 at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church.
Christ the King Sunday
Readings: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14; John 14:27

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Wilderness Living

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.” 1 Kings 19:1-18 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from God, our creator; Jesus Christ, our redeemer; and the Holy Spirit, who calls us and continues to renew and sustain us each and every day. Amen. 

How many of you are baseball fans? If you are a baseball fan--and even if you’re not--it was hard to miss the World Series this year, wasn’t it? What a great series it was--setting records for the most number of home runs, for one of the longest games (maybe even the longest!), plus that fact that the Dodgers and Astros went the full seven games. 

You probably know which team I was rooting for, don’t you? Yeah, having lived in So. California, I’m a diehard Dodgers fan. In that last game, as they were behind 5-0, I kept thinking that once the 6th inning came, they’d get back into the game as they had so many times before.

But, it wasn’t to happen this year, was it? Instead, the Astros won that last game 5-1 and, with it, the series.

I couldn’t really begrudge the Astros for winning it, though. After all that Houston has been through this year, it kind of felt right, didn’t it? That their team would win the Series and bring home the trophy for the first time ever--a win that gave them something to celebrate, even in the midst of all of the difficulty the people of Houston have experienced over these past few months.

It’s been quite a past few months, hasn’t it? Hurricanes, earthquakes, fires. In reading the text for today, and, particularly, when I read vs. 11-12 in The Message, I was struck by the similarity of these past few months with the experience of the prophet Elijah as he stood at Mt. Horeb, or Sinai, as we also know it, waiting to see God. “A hurricane wind ripped through the mountains and shattered the rocks before God, but God wasn’t to be found in the wind; after the wind, an earthquake, but God wasn’t in the earthquake; and after the earthquake fire, but God wasn’t in the fire.”

As the hurricanes ripped through Texas and Louisiana, and Florida and Puerto Rico, and the rest of the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean, where was God? As the earthquake shook Mexico, was God to be found? As the fire tore through No. California, destroying thousands of homes, had God abandoned everyone? In the midst of the hurricanes, and earthquakes, and fires, where was God to be found?

Elijah wondered the same thing. Where was God to be found? Had God abandoned him?

Elijah. Just who was Elijah? To understand his story, we have to back up a bit to our lesson from last week, when we heard the story of King Solomon, son of David. Solomon—renowned for his wisdom, his great wealth, his penchant for marrying foreign women, and, particularly last week, his building of the temple--a project that took him 7 years.

What we didn’t hear about Solomon, though, was that he also built a palace for himself. An extravagant project that took 14 years. Hmmm….7 years. Fourteen years. Seven years for the temple for God. Fourteen years for the palace for Solomon. 

Do you begin to see the problem? With all of his wealth. With all of his marriages to foreign women--women who came from different cultures and who worshipped different gods. With all of these distractions, Solomon began to lose sight of God. 

And everything began to fall apart. 

If you remember the story from last week, Solomon used forced labor to build the temple.  In addition, for him to maintain his lavish lifestyle, Solomon taxed the people excessively. There was growing discontent. 

By the end of Solomon’s reign, there was a kind of Tea Party revolt in the 10 northern tribes. “If you lower our taxes and ease our burden, we’ll stay with you and in your kingdom,” they told Solomon. It was his own son, his successor, who said, “No! In fact, I’m going to make it even worse for you,” and then he both increased their workload and their taxes. So, the northern tribes revolted. The kingdom of Israel split in two. The rebels formed a northern kingdom and the remaining tribe formed a southern one. Both continued to be ruled by kings--just different ones.

The prophet Elijah appears in the northern kingdom at the time of King Ahab. We know from archaeology that Ahab was one of the most powerful and successful kings for the northern kingdom. But, we also know from scripture, that he was also one of the most unfaithful.

We know little about Elijah. He first bursts onto the scene when he shows up after Ahab becomes king and predicts a drought. Knowing that the king won’t be happy with his prediction, Elijah flees and goes into hiding. 

God calls him to return. 

And, in what would be the equivalent of a World Wrestling Smackdown, Elijah triumphs over 450 false prophets of Baal, the god who is worshipped by Queen Jezebel, one of Ahab’s wives. At the end of this triumph, although it is not part of God’s command, Elijah slays all of the Baal prophets. Queen Jezebel is furious and sends Elijah a message. That within 24 hours he will be just as dead as the Baal prophets. 

Once again, Elijah is on the run. He flees for dear life to Beersheba, which is far south, near the border between Egypt and the Promised Land. He ends up in the same wilderness that Israel wandered in for 40 years. The same place where Israel cried out to God, “It would have been better if the Lord had killed us in the land of Egypt.” It is in this place—this same wilderness—that Elijah, centuries later, cries out, “Enough of this, God! Take my life--I’m ready to join my ancestors in the grave!”

How often do we, like Elijah and Israel, say these same words when we are in our own wilderness moments? Or when we witness the wilderness of our world. Where are you, God? How much more must I endure of this life? I have served you and now I am all alone. Take me from this life. Reunite me with those I have loved who are no longer here. How much longer, O God?

As we so often do, Elijah also felt completely alone. And afraid.

Yet, in  the next verses we read that God fed Elijah in the wilderness. That God sustained him for the journey he would take to Mt. Horeb--Mt. Sinai. It was there on the mountain that Elijah would learn that God is not always to be found in the glory and power and majesty we might imagine, or even desire. Sometimes, God is present in the sound of sheer silence. In the smallest of voices.

This week, a friend of mine shared some of her thoughts about All Saints Day in a Facebook post. She wrote about “thin places.” That some people think “thin places” refer to physical locations. But, for her, “thin places” are places of synchronicity of time and place accompanied by heightened awareness and emotional connection. God moments. Moments that are fleeting experiences that can’t be predicted or recreated, but that they stay in the memory as a touchstone, as something for us to hold onto. 

Then she, shared this quote by Mindie Burgoyne: “Thin places are ports in the storm of life, where the pilgrims can move closer to the God they seek, where one leaves that which is familiar and journeys into the Divine Presence. They are stopping places where men and women are given pause to wonder about what lies beyond the mundane rituals, the grief, the trials and the boredom of our day-to-day life. They probe to the core of the human heart and open the pathway that leads to satisfying the familiar hungers and yearnings common to all people on earth--the hunger to be connected, to be a part of something greater, to be loved, to find peace.” Thin places.

In my former church in Pasadena, we had a communion rail that ran in front of the altar from one side of the sanctuary to the other. On one All Saints Sunday, my pastor explained the tradition that these communion rails represented. That they didn’t stop at the walls, but that they continued to extend into infinity, into all time. So that, even in death, we are all connected together. That, when we come to the communion table, we are participating in the meal not only with those here present today, but with all the saints--past, present, and future. With our loved ones who have died. With our loved ones who are here with us. And with our loved ones who are yet to come. 

All of us. Together. At the Eucharistic feast--at this “thin place.” This “thin place,” where we come together in the midst of our wildernesses. Where we come in the midst of our mundane lives. Where we come in the midst of our grief and our trials.  Where, sometimes along the journey, we come like Elijah and Israel and look back and long for the past, simply because we don’t know what the next day will bring. 

It is here, in this “thin place,” where we come and where we experience the Divine Presence. Not in power and glory and majesty so much. But, like Elijah, in a quiet and gentle whisper. In the words we hear. In the water we touch. In the bread and wine we eat. Together, with 
the communion of the saints.

Then, like Elijah, we are reminded once again that God provides sustenance. That God provides strength for the journey and renews our call. And, mostly, mostly, that we are never, ever alone. 

May we cling to these touchstone moments as we travel through the wilderness. 


Preached November 5, 2017, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
All Saints Sunday
Readings: 1 Kings 19:1-18, John 12:27-19