Listening for God

(1 Samuel 3:1-20) By Rev. Rick King—On this Martin Luther King weekend, we celebrate the “I Have a Dream” speech and give thanks to God for King’s leadership, and the moral courage he gave to the civil rights movement. But as with most things, the story is much deeper and more nuanced than that speech or even the public witness of King and the movement. We place King and others on a pedestal, and think of them as heroes who are vastly different from us; but times and circumstances, more than talent and heroism account for people like King who become agents for social change.

Listening for God can be hard in the midst of all that’s going on in our lives. Often, we think of the key to effectively listening for God is a matter of getting quiet and still enough, so we see the “noise” in our lives as the problem to be solved.

But just as often, we don’t have a God-hearing problem, so much as a choosing-what-voice-to-listen-to problem. Thankfully today, on this MLK weekend, we have in the story of Samuel something that speaks to listening and acting with courage. And that’s important, because more than seven years before the speech at the March on Washington, Martin Luther King had what has come to be called his “Kitchen Table Epiphany.” It was the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott. Rosa Parks had just been hauled to the police precinct for refusing to move to the back of the bus. And King had emerged as the confident new leader of the movement against racism and violence in a spirit of confident, public nonviolence.

But inside, King was feeling thrust into a position of leadership he didn’t feel equipped to handle. He had agreed to lead the boycott, which people assumed would last only a few days and be a symbolic victory. But instead, it stretched over 381 days, and white Montgomery, AL, began to see an economic impact on the horizon. It was then that the death threats began: “Call off the boycott or die.” The calls to King’s house eventually came daily—as many as forty a day. There was one time, when the police had jailed him for speeding, that King imagined himself on the threshold of being lynched. Fear settled in on him like nightfall.

But King’s life and ministry was shaped and informed by the biblical stories, stories just like the one we heard today about Samuel. These stories tell of people in all states of emotion in response to events in their lives: joy, praise, fear, desolation, community, decision, abandonment. The psalms alone run the gamut, from the darkness and isolation of Psalm 88, to the palpable, inescapable sense of God’s presence in Psalm 139, which we heard echoes of in our Call to Worship.

The psalms illustrate the dance with God of people of faith, as life experience rises and falls and God seems one moment as close to us as breathing, and the next, as distant as the farthest star. It helps to know that, wherever you and I find ourselves in relationship to God, others have been there before us.

The story of the call of the boy Samuel to be Israel’s first prophet runs the gamut, too. We like to focus on the first half of the story, which has Samuel seeking wisdom from the wise elder, Eli, who has served long in the temple and has been entrusted by Samuel’s mother, Hannah, with schooling and forming young Samuel in the ways of the Torah and the priesthood.

What we find out in the second half of the story paints a more human, but much less heroic, picture of Eli, and gets at the ambivalence and anxiety Samuel experiences as he comes of age as a prophet and immediately has to deliver bad news to his mentor. The second half of our reading from 1 Samuel today tells “the rest of the story” of how Eli fell down as a parent when his sons, Hophni and Phineas, had turned the Temple into a brothel, and Eli had said or done little or nothing to correct them. And Samuel’s first prophecy after he wakes up to the fact that the voice that keeps calling to him in the night is the voice of God—is nothing less than judgment against the house of Eli and his sons as punishment for what the sons had done and what the father had failed to do.

Samuel was afraid to deliver the news; Eli, to his credit, urges Samuel not to old back but to relay every word to him, no matter how hard that is. Eventually, Samuel became the heroic prophet who anointed David king of the Jews—and also later called David on the carpet when he did wrong. But I believe it not only started with God’s spirit given to the prophet, but with Eli’s modeling of how to listen to God with courage and openness, and take brave action, even when it seems too little, too late.

Now, back to Martin: King’s fear reached its low point late on a Friday night, January 27, 1956. King had come home tired after another long strategy meeting, and Coretta was asleep. As he paced the house, still keyed up and on edge, the phone rang, and the voice on the other end threatened: “Leave Montgomery immediately if you have no wish to die.” As King hung up the phone, the fear welled up inside of him. He walked into the kitchen, put on a pot of coffee and sat down at the table.

For all his faith, King was not a person given to personal testimony about his inner life. But in a rare moment of openness, he described what happened next. “I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.

“The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.’

“At that moment,” King says, “I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. I t seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”

Three days later, a bomb blasted his house, and his family narrowly escaped. “Strangely enough,” King later wrote, “I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it.”

News of the bombing drew a crowd. A mob supportive of King formed within the hour, all clenched jaws and closed fists. And they pressed up against the shattered house and shouted for vengeance. King mounted the broken porch and raised his hands. “We must meet hate with love. Remember, if I am stopped, this movement will not stop, because God is with this movement. Go home with this glorious faith and radiant assurance.” And thus, the mob dissipated, their mood disarmed and their ears ringing with the message of gospel nonviolence.

Some eleven years later, King spoke before an audience of his epiphany in the kitchen. “It seemed at that moment, I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’ I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.” (Adapted from John Dear, “The God at Dr. King’s Kitchen Table,” National Catholic Reporter, January 16, 2007)

There is power simply in being known—but also in knowing others before us have been through much worse tests of courage than we have, and have not only survived, but grown in courage. To know, as Psalm 139 describes, that there is no place we can go and not have God with us, is not only comforting, but empowering. To know that even a prophet like Samuel felt squeamish about delivering bad news to his mentor, yet grew up to be a lion of God’s Word, even to a king like David, can be an encouragement to you and me to look at a complicated, scary situation and find the courage to say or do the next right thing. God does not promise to take away misfortune from our lives or protect us from harm, or even promise us freedom from fear. What God does promise is never to abandon us, never to run away, but to always be Presence, Peace, and Power so that we can face with courage whatever comes.

No matter what you or I are facing today, no matter what we find ourselves in the midst of, the God who knows us intimately is there—as God has been there for countless other people of faith. And because God is there, we, too, can be there, and choose to listen, and stand—in the face of fear, or sadness, or harm—and act in obedience to God’s will. AMEN.

Hope is subversive

(Isaiah 6-:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12) By Rev. Rick King—Last night, we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany, which always happens on January 6, with a bonfire and hopes for the year ahead. Oh, and eating chili, too. Today is Epiphany Sunday, and the readings from Isaiah and Matthew are the same Epiphany readings every year—Isaiah’s promise that new hope is dawning after a long, dark time in Israel’s history, and the story of the Magi, the three kings, who ostensibly follow a star to worship the baby Jesus—but who end up foiling King Herod’s plot to find and eliminate him, and the threat he poses.

Empires like Herod’s are always threatened by hope. Despair, cynicism, and “settling” are what Empire needs to survive, and hope makes it hard for those to exist. As long as there was no hope of Israel returning to Jerusalem and rebuilding the temple, people would settle for a captive but comfortable life in Babylon, where there were beautiful Hanging Gardens (think “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World”), and they could make a tranquil, domestic life for themselves and their families, and not have to think about what they were missing without God, the Land, and lovingkindness.

Captivity—to whatever—always dulls us, and makes it easy, eventually, to settle for mediocrity. But hope is subversive; it eventually finds a way.

And the Magi? We love the story of “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” The lore that’s grown up around them reinforces their mysterious, exotic origins and their background as star-gazers, soothsayers, and diviners of wisdom, who nevertheless seek out a baby boy, born King of the Jews, illuminated by “What Star is This, that Burns So Bright?” as we heard the choir sing in the Introit.

The “light” imagery this morning is unmistakable, from the opening hymn, a riff off of Isaiah’s “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you,” to our final hymn, “We are Marching in the Light of God,” and from the lighting of the Christ Candle and switching our liturgical colors to white, to the fact that in the northern hemisphere, we’ve passed the winter solstice and the days are lengthening, the nights growing shorter. Signs of hope are all around us!

And the light imagery is there in the readings, as well, along with references to abundance, and joy, and symbolically significant gifts that the Magi bring. I know I called them “useless and priceless” on Christmas Eve, but the gifts are actually most appropriate for a boy-king who will become a dying-and-rising Savior later on in his life. Gold for a king, frankincense to burn as prayers are offered to a God, and myrrh which comes back to importance at the Crucifixion.

Epiphany answers the question, “What do you do after Christmas?” by shouting at the top of its lungs, “Make Jesus real!!” Because, as we heard in the gospel lesson last week, Jesus doesn’t stay a baby—he grows up! And Epiphany gives our faith a chance to grow up, too. It’s no mistake that the rest of Matthew’s story to accompany the Three Kings is the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous plans, and Herod’s rage at having those plans foiled. That rage gives rise to the horrific Slaughter of the Innocents, which is nothing less than mass infanticide by a paranoid ruler with absolute power to order it. The Magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, who wants them to tell him where Jesus is, NOT so Herod can “pay him homage,” as he says, but so he can tell his contract killers where to find the baby, and eliminate him.

There is much in the world around us that does NOT want the HOPE that was promised in Advent, fulfilled in the Christmas birth, and made real in Epiphany. In fact, the stronger our witness to hope, the harder evil tries to thwart hope. Whether it’s religion that anesthetizes people to accept injustice as “their lot in life,” or government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich—Epiphany Hope subverts the plans of the powerful who would build empires on the backs of the poor, enslave and incarcerate black and brown people, and substitute personalistic salvation for the Reign of God.

Against the prevailing despair that makes us settle for less than justice, peace, and compassion for Jesus’ brothers and sisters, HOPE gives us the vision and the power to ask, and ACT, for MORE for the weak and voiceless.

That’s what it means to be Epiphany People. That is Subversive Hope. Amen.

Unlikely: A Christmas message

(Isaiah 9:2-7, 11:1-10; Matthew 2:1-11, Luke 2:1-20; John 1:1-14) By Rev. Rick King—You and I are coming to the end of a year of unlikely events. Things we thought would never happen. Whether political, social, or personal, in five minutes, each of us could probably develop a list of several things that defied our expectations, for good or ill, and made us rethink how we view the world, human nature, and expectation itself.

The online magazine Gizmodo recently chronicled a whole bunch of unlikely, futuristic things that are actually present realities predicted in a not-so-distant past, things happening right now, largely in the science and technology realm; and I’ve added to this list from what I’ve observed or read about in the news or on podcasts this year: They include advances in Artificial Intelligence, voice and face recognition, a functional artificial womb, robot soldiers and drone aircraft, gene therapy, neural interface technologies, and self-driving cars.

“Likelihood” can sometimes be over-rated, when the unlikely comes to pass.

Although you and I have become anesthetized to the stories we read at Christmas, to the point where the raw power of what was predicted and happened is lost on us, and replaced by a gurgling child and beaming parents amid an admiring circle of friends—let’s just stop for a minute and think of what our readings have narrated for us: A long-displaced people Israel returning home after several generations of having their own nation occupied by a foreign power and their leaders held hostage in a faraway country; the promise of a just, kind, and godly leader, the likes of which they hadn’t had in hundreds of years; two high-risk pregnancies, one because the mother was so young, homeless, and traveling with her fiancée, who is not the father of her child; the other high-risk because the mother is too old, long past her childbearing years; a birth announced by angelic beings, of which sheepherders spread the word, which occurs in a cattle-shed far away from home, accompanied by highly unusual astronomical phenomena, in the midst of an infanticide order by a paranoid ruler, which drew animals, their caretakers, and foreign guest bringing useless but priceless gifts, who are all the more notable because they foiled the paranoid king’s plot to have the child that was born killed.

Oh, and the baby resulting from the OTHER high-risk pregnancy, that of the too-aged mother? He ends up being the key witness to the other birth, which is described rhapsodically in metaphors like “Word made flesh,” and “light which is not overcome by darkness.”

Find an “unlikely” person, cause, or movement this year: bring it close to your heart; nurture it; champion it; give it some tender loving care; and tell others about it, and why it’s important to you.

You see, the “unlikely” invites us into an act of religious imagination, into the birthing of a reality wholly different than the one we might be witnessing now, in the world around us. HOPE is like that; HOPE majors in the unlikely. HOPE does not disappoint. HOPE changes things. It brings about revolutions in consciousness, changes in worldview, actions that transform lives, relationships, and the planet.

The rebirth of hope in our hearts is what we celebrate tonight. As we witness to that hope, let us make it so! Amen.

How do we receive hope?

(Luke 1:26-38, 47-55) By Rev. Rick King—It’s a tough time to be optimistic, with great uncertainty in the world and a feeling that something is deeply amiss in our nation. Christians and religious people generally, are not speaking with anybody except those with whom they agree, because it doesn’t feel safe to do so. Not exactly a favorable climate for a sunny outlook!

Into this morass comes the promise of the birth of a Savior, as it does every year—of God doing a new thing in our midst.

But how is this to happen, with all that’s going on? We may feel out of energy, powerless to change certain things. And we tend, sometimes, to get “stuck” on the things we’re powerless over, and begin to feel like we’re “being acted upon by reality.”

But we are a people of HOPE, not just optimism, as our Advent theme reminds us. That’s one of the big reasons we’re a church, after all, and not something else—we’re looking for hope. In the “Biblical Grounding” time on our agenda at the dinner meeting we had at Executive Board Tuesday night, I shared this text from Luke’s gospel that we heard just now—about how CELEBRATION can be an act of RESISTANCE against despair and the feeling of powerlessness; we celebrate not just when we have obvious reasons to do so; we celebrate no matter what is happening in our lives. It’s one of the ways we practice our faith.

But still, if you’re like me, you struggle with staying focused on the “half-empty” part of the proverbial glass. There are lots of inner messages, old tapes that play, powerful, inherited myths that shape our ability to receive hope, and hold onto it, when it’s so much easier to let it slip through our grasp like a fleeting thing, rather than the bedrock that it’s meant to be.

That’s why, on this Fourth Sunday in Advent, coinciding with Christmas Eve Day and three days after the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, the story of the Annunciation to Mary that she’s pregnant with Jesus comes at just the right time, illuminating hope and promise in the midst of despair and need. And Mary’s dialogue with the angel, and the process she goes through in receiving this news can show us a way to receive the hope that is hope, not just optimism and Christmas cheer.

First of all, Mary is perplexed. She’s confused when the angel comes to her and greets her with, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Now, Mary was about sixteen years old. How do the teenage girls you know (or teenage boys, too), react when somebody notices them? If I let my imagination go for a bit, the dialogue might go something like, “As if! Why are you coming to me? You and I both know I’m not favored….What do you want from me?”

Obviously, I’m paraphrasing freely! But the important thing is, Mary doesn’t run away, or push the angel away. She holds the door open, and engages. When Mary “ponders what sort of greeting this might be,” she’s taking it seriously, not dismissing it. So, perplexity is a positive because she engages with this holy messenger. We don’t know why, but she does.

And she receives reassurance: “Don’t be afraid, Mary…” and also a promise: “You will conceive in your womb…and you will name him Jesus…and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David.” Something is about to happen, and it involves this teenage girl. She’s about to become an agent, instead of someone acted upon by her circumstances.

The second thing that happens is that in response to the promise of what is to come, she doubts, as in, doubts her own abilities. How often have you and I had opportunities present themselves and immediately focused on ourselves rather than the opportunity? Focusing on all the reasons why we could never do this, not in a million years. “I’ve never done that before. I don’t know anything about how to do this. I feel overwhelmed. Shocked and dismayed that I would even be considered. Almost like the reassurance disappeared before it could make a difference. “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” is Mary’s retort. Essentially, “God, are you crazy? These things don’t happen.”

But there’s even a good side to this: It shows us about ourselves that, when the confusion clears some, and we begin to see what’s being laid on us, we are apt to feel our falling-short. In these kinds of situations, nobody has to tell us to “get real!” We’re already there. And so is Mary. Pollyanna is gone. We have replaced our rose-colored glasses with some “hard-reality” ones, emptied of all pretense.

And yet, this self-emptying, of all our pride in our own accomplishments and powers and capacities, presents the perfect opening for what comes next, to Mary and to us, in these situations: Realizing We’re Not Alone.

This comes in two ways: Number One, community—“Your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren, unable to conceive.” And Number Two, seeing that it’s not about us! Some Higher Power, some unseen force, Something or Someone much bigger than us, is already at work, doing what we cannot do by ourselves.

So, Mary might have thought to herself, “This is happening to somebody else, too? And somebody even less likely than I am?”

Community—finding others in a similar situation, no matter how implausible it seems at the time—can help us realize that the Power beyond ourselves is at work, as the angel says, “For nothing is impossible with God.”

Mary is now in a position for the next step in receiving hope—Saying Yes. A radical yes! She’s realized that she and Elizabeth are partners, not just with each other, but with God—partners in the “new thing” God is doing. And Mary says, “Here am I…let it be with me as you have said.”

And then, Mary goes to Elizabeth, and they have this meeting of minds and hearts and wombs (because Elizabeth’s child, John the Baptist, leaps inside of her at the news of Mary’s pregnancy). And then Mary, the demure teenager, a Nobody of unimportant lineage, previously believing herself to be insignificant—Goes Public with what has happened, in praise and exultation. And the Magnificat is her song of celebration. Her words have echoed for centuries among the downtrodden and advocates alike, “for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God’s name.”

We receive hope by being real and open to God, open to life on life’s terms, in all its grit and splendor, and by engaging with God—no matter what. If holy men and women have struggled toward blessing, then struggle we will! We can’t go around our own barriers to hope; we have to go through and over them.

This season, no matter what, you and I are invited to engage with the God of Hope, who promises to be with us. Amen.

Hope is inhabiting our longing

(Isaiah 64:1-9) By Rev. Rick King—The reading from Isaiah for this first Sunday of Advent does not have the tone we’re accustomed to, busy as we are with all there is to do in this season I call, “Hallowthankmas,” which runs roughly from Halloween, through Thanksgiving and on past Christmas, and stops sometime shortly after the New Year. There’s a lot in us that wants to look forward immediately to Christmas, accustomed as we are to constant stimulation. We’re used to the traditions that propel us from one holiday to the next in a season when there’s limited light, and it’s too cold most of the time to get anything done outside. Maybe we want to keep our Seasonal Affective Disorder at bay, or perhaps we associate the holidays with our families and the interpersonal struggles that come with being part of them.

This time of year, we may fall into using the season’s purposeful busyness and noisy cheer to fill the empty spaces we may feel, whether we’re single or married, solitary or with more people in our life than we can ever spend quality time with. Because the season is supposed to be bustling, busy, and full of life and good cheer.

Well, the Isaiah reading speaks to our situation, as it did to Israel’s. It’s different than many of the other Isaiah passages we read during Advent and Christmas. We’re more familiar with words like those in chapter 40, for example, which we know from Handel’s “Messiah”: “Comfort, comfort ye my people.” But our reading today is a prayer uttered to God out of pain and deep despair. And given what’s happening in our nation and the world this year, Isaiah’s words this morning seem particularly relevant because God seems absent, and silent. Like Israel, we would like God to return to a time when God acted in unmistakable ways—when God acted like GOD! Mountains quaking, and fire, so much so that all their enemies, the nations that wanted to take them out, would tremble.

But Israel had entered into a different period in its relationship with God, a time not just of silence, as though God were hiding. No, God’s relationship with people was evolving, becoming less overtly supernatural. The Hebrew Scriptures go from stories like the Burning Bush and the parting of the Red Sea, to God speaking to Elijah in a still, small voice, rather than in earthquake, wind, and fire. God was a lot more subtle now, and Israel’s prophets were there to remind people that God was still at work, just not in parting seas, but now instead in parting nations and families from one another in the form of military conquests and the Babylonian Exile. Prophets were there to tell them that God was working through historical events.

In this season we’re entering, this season of waiting, of preparation, of expectancy, of supposed HOPE—where do we look for hope? In a time when the people Jesus and the prophets said are dearest to God’s heart are being thrown under the bus by our own government, and the poor, women, children, immigrants and minorities are being trampled underfoot, how can we have hope? Doesn’t any message of hope, even during this season, ring hollow in the face of what’s happening?

But as the apostle Paul is so good to remind us in Romans 8:24, “Hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what is seen?” The very essence of hope is that we have to look for it, reveal and call attention to what points to it, and yes, even LONG for it. This Advent, in this time and place, you and I can find, as Israel did, that longing for God in hope is itself part of God’s presence, part of how we know God is there. IF we learn to live in the times when God seems most absent, and silent, and to practice perseverance in our longing and our hope. We need to learn to inhabit our longing. For it is our longing that makes us reach out, thirsting, hungering for a deeper relationship than just “what God can do for me.” And all of a sudden, it also makes it impossible to spiritualize the message of the readings, impossible to individualize it. This is a longing for the salvation of all, not just an individual!

In Advent, we have an opportunity to intentionally focus on what it is we’re missing in our spiritual life, to reach out to God and to remove barriers to a deeper, more resilient, more indestructible relationship with God—to sharpen our prayers, and embolden our social action. In Advent, we get ready for a God who moved from Burning Bush, to sheer silence, to being the voice of prophets, to a face-to-face presence in Jesus. We celebrate a God who will stop at nothing to get through to us, who is not only there waiting for us, but deeply desires a relationship with us, who longs for the truth and reconciliation so badly needed in our world right now—and who promises to transform us through a love that will not let us go.

This is how we LIVE HOPE, in preparation for the coming of Jesus. Let’s not be afraid of God’s seeming absence. But on the other hand, if we feel God’s presence in all the Advent traditions and preparations for Christmas, so be it—let’s give thanks for it, and have it power our action on behalf of hope!

If you feel God absent, in the form of a longing, I invite you to welcome it; listen in the silence for what your heart might be telling you. And give thanks for that longing, because it drives us all to reach out to God even more, and to become part of the transforming work of Jesus in our world. Amen.

The fall of leaders and the lessons of shepherding

(Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Matthew 25:31-46) By Rev. Rick King—What a week! We’re witnessing members of Congress in both parties continue to wrestle with a tsunami of allegations of sexual harassment; the fall of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s only leader in its history; and the conviction of General Ratko Mladic for war crimes and genocide. And that was all before Thanksgiving; who knows what the next week will bring?

One of the things the Christian year and the readings associated with it can give us is a lens through which to see the world, that helps us connect the dots and make sense of events, understanding and even drawing lessons from history, so we can avoid repeating the worst, and at least make different mistakes. And as a result, you and I can come to know better how to live in the midst of it, as people of faith, and agents for change.

Today is the last day of the Christian year—you might call it New Year’s Eve in the church calendar. Because next Sunday, we begin the season of Advent, and with it, a new year in the liturgical cycle. Like any New Year’s Eve, it gives us the chance to look back and take stock of the good and the bad, the victories and defeats, and all that lies in between. This is Reign of Christ Sunday, also called Christ the King, and as you might expect, the question of “Who’s in charge?” in the world is central—and it feels even more urgent when something happens like the terrorist bombing of the Sufi mosque in Egypt—as in the sense of somebody walking into a room during a crisis and yelling, “Who’s in charge here?!”

The book of Ezekiel was trying to help Israel make sense of what had happened to them and why. They were exiled in Babylon, their leaders under house arrest in Jerusalem, which had been destroyed and occupied, their temple was in ruins; and the rest of the population had been scattered throughout the region, refugees invaded by a foreign aggressor and kicked out of what was supposedly their God-given Promised Land.

In the face of what had happened, how were they supposed to live now, as exiles in a foreign land and not knowing if or when they would ever return?
I might be stretching just a little bit, but many of you have intimated that you, too, feel a bit exiled right now in a nation you thought you knew, but which has come to seem like a foreign land.

The prophetic tradition, of which Ezekiel is a part, has a particular take on leadership: “Kings will let you down.” Israel wanted kings, eventually, as a sign to all the other nations that they had “arrived,” as a legitimate world power: Assyria, Babylon, Israel. “Get us a king,” they would say to God; and the prophets would say, “You don’t want a king.” And the history that runs through 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings in the Old Testament is a compare-and-contrast piece proving, over and over, that it’s not having an earthly king alone that makes you a legitimate nation, but whether that king places God at the center, and love of God and neighbor are your goals.

The good news, says Ezekiel, is that God is through with irresponsible leaders, and is taking over. “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep…I will seek the lost, and bring back the strayed, and will bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak—but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice” (34:15-16).

Now, whether we can understand the recent fall of powerful leaders as God’s will or not, we can draw some lessons that help us live in the midst of it and not lose our perspective, and even be more effective agents for good in the lives of others, whether it’s our family members, or practicing just and kind covenant relations within our congregation, or advocating for systemic change in schools or the halls of government.

Ezekiel’s not the only place where God seems to take one look at what’s happening and says, “Okay, step aside; this is a mess; I’m taking over.” Jesus is doing it, too, in the vision of the Great Judgment, or what’s come to be called “the separation of the sheep and the goats.” And the message is simple, and one we often use as the measure of a faith, or a leader, or a government: “Whatever you did to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”

Right leadership leads as though it seeks God, seeks love in all things. M. Scott Peck tells a story called “The Rabbi’s Gift,” in his book, “The Different Drum,” that reminds us of the power of living this way:

The story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. It was once a great order, but because of persecution, all its branch houses were lost and there were only five monks left in the decaying house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order.

In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi occasionally used for a hermitage. The old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. “The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods,” they would whisper. It occurred to the abbot that a visit to the rabbi might result in some advice to save his monastery.

The rabbi welcomed the abbot to his hut. But when the abbot explained his visit, the rabbi could only say, “I know how it is.”

“The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” So, the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and spoke of deep things. When the abbot had to leave, they embraced each other. “It has been wonderful that we should meet after all these years,” the abbot said, “but I have failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me that would help me save my dying order?”

“No, I am sorry,” the rabbi responded. “I have no advice to give. But, I can tell you that the Messiah is one of you.”

When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well what did the rabbi say?”

“The rabbi said something very mysterious, something cryptic. He said that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.”

In the time that followed, the old monks pondered the rabbi’s words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks? If so, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly, Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly, he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for always being there when you need him. He just magically appears. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah.

Of course, the rabbi didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn’t be that much for You, could I?

As they contemplated, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

People still occasionally came to visit the monastery in its beautiful forest to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even to meditate in the dilapidated chapel. As they did so, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely compelling about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery to picnic, to play, to pray. They brought their friends to this special place. And their friends brought their friends.

Then some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another, and another. So, within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.

The Messiah is one of you.

Amen.

Allies don’t rest

(Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11) By Rev. Rick King—When we discussed these two texts on Tuesday morning in Bible study this week, we all pretty much agreed that we liked Paul’s words in the second one a LOT better than Zephaniah’s in the first. Zephaniah is harsh, his God is angry at something the people have done, and seems to have it in for them. It fits all the negative stereotypes of a vengeful God that turn people off on Christianity.

More than that, it overturns our expectations for the Sunday before Thanksgiving: In normal years, we expect—indeed, we may feel entitled to—an early celebration of Thanksgiving, where we can look back and count our blessings. And this year would seem to be a season in our church’s life that brings forth more praise and thanks than usual for all that God is doing. And in Zephaniah, it seems from the context that the people he’s speaking to were expecting something different from him, as well—a message congratulating them on how well they were doing as God’s people.

I think this is important, because today is not only the Sunday before Thanksgiving, but also our observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance, which was started in 1999 to remember and mourn the lives taken by transphobia-motivated violence. At this time of year, as the temperatures drop and the nights become long in the Northern Hemisphere, the seasons in the Christian Year invite us to turn inward and get more reflective. Two weeks ago, All Saints’ Day reminded us of the shortness of life and the faith legacy of people close to us who have died. In two more weeks, we will begin the season of Advent, when we are invited to prepare for the coming of Jesus by doing a spiritual housecleaning of sorts.

Don’t worry, it won’t all be introspective: We have Schubert’s Mass in C and “Just a Lowly Camel,” this year’s Christmas pageant, coming in the two Sundays after that! But as a church, we need to be able to look at hard things, and take a hard look at ourselves and the human condition, without shrinking. Beware of a church that can’t do this, in which everything needs to be sweetness and light all the time; beware a church that can’t do dark. Not everything is gloomy all the time, but not everything is all good.

So, to set the context a little bit more: Both of our readings deal with something called “the Day of the Lord,” a time of reckoning and taking stock, and if you and I were doing such an inventory of our lives, both Zephaniah and Paul would prompt us to ask how we’re doing as people of faith—both in the gratitude department, AND the “Allies” department. After all, things are different in the world than we would like them to be, and part of a prophet’s role is to name things for what they are, and that’s what Zephaniah is doing. He might be saying to us that today is a day of deep anguish at the culture of death that’s reemerging around the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming people.

In the gratitude department, you and I would be remiss if we didn’t recognize and give thanks for the progress that’s been made in LGBTQ rights in the last decade; yet we can’t rest on our laurels, or what Zephaniah calls “our dregs”—the long-ago-won victories of the past. In the “ally” column of our inventory, we need to address our vigilance, or we will witness the undoing of all those victories won since Stonewall. And as a cisgender, straight white male, I know I really have a lot of catching up to do on trans rights and what life is like for members of the trans community. And what I can do as an ally.

In our inventory, the gratitude and the vigilant ally columns are related: true gratitude and a focus on the progress we’ve made encourages us and spurs us to further action, because we know we can make a real difference. At the same time, if we ask regularly how we’re doing as vigilant allies, we can keep from putting on rose-colored glasses and have a more accurate grasp on reality, which provides its own kind of motivation to be agents of change in the lives of those who are in peril.

If we were to imagine what Zephaniah and Paul might be saying to us on this Trans Day of Remembrance, it might go something like, “Beware of treating ONA as though it’s a finish-line, because that’s an illusion: it’s really only a starting line, and you shouldn’t think, ‘Whew! Thank God we’re ONA!’ and slack off; that’s living in the dregs; and allies don’t rest when there’s justice to be done. Being ONA is a trust, and if we’re not moving forward, we’re moving backward.”

And yet, I get the feeling I’m reminding you of things you already know, and this is where Paul’s approach is helpful. He says in the opening words of our chapter, “You don’t need to have anyone write to you about times and seasons. For you are children of the day, and you already know what time it is.”

But we take time out on this day to focus on the fact that trans lives are still being lost—indeed, the rate of hate crimes and suicides based on gender identity and gender expression are on the rise again. Rights of trans members of our military are being rolled back, as are employment protections for LGBTQ folks in the workplace. Not to mention the continuing health care challenges trans folks face from a lack of understanding and acceptance of their distinctive set of medical needs.

So there’s a great deal yet to be done. Part of a prophet’s role is to interpret the signs of the times through the lens of God’s will, and if we take that look through clear eyes, Zephaniah’s view looks right on—pretty bleak, I admit, but right on. Zephaniah’s warning is also there in Paul’s words to the church at Thessalonica: Remember who you are, and how important this is. Don’t let the Day of the Lord come upon you like a thief in the night: Don’t underestimate how bad things are, and how much worse they can get if good people rest on their laurels of what they’ve done in the past, but do nothing in the present.

So on this day of mourning, let us remember the lives lost because of transphobia and neglect of the rights of these precious children of God. And the Day of the Lord is never a day of doom in the Bible; it’s always a day of turning and transformation, of our lives, and the lives of all. Amen.

Ultralight with Jesus

(Matthew 9:35-10:14) By Rev. Rick King—For our honeymoon in 1997, Linda and I backpacked six miles in on the Kekekabic Trail in the Boundary Waters. We had planned to go further, but found the perfect campsite and decided to make it our base camp for day hikes and hanging out. It was wonderful: simplicity, solitude, and the kind of silence that refreshes your spirit. Apart from two hikers going by once on the trail and a single canoer on Parent Lake, we saw nobody but each other the entire week—perfect for two newlyweds on a long-awaited honeymoon.

For our wedding, the only place we registered for any gifts was at Erehwon Mountain Outfitters, for camping equipment. On the Kek, we took conventional frame backpacks, down sleeping bags and Ensolite pads, a couple backpacking stoves and fuel, clothes and sundries, and a traditional, 2-person tent and ground cloth borrowed from a church member. Plus that delicious, dehydrated food you buy at places like REI.

Both of us are committed to simplicity, and we tried to pack sparingly, but our packs with food, water, and fuel ended up weighing 45-50 pounds each! Now, this would not have been a big deal in ordinary circumstances—both of us were in our early 30s and in really good shape—but for the fact that we lost our way on the opening section of the trail before it goes into the woods, where it’s easier to see the path—and fell off an old beaver dam into the water up to our chests! It was at that moment that the extra pack-weight became apparent!

Since then, Linda, especially, has discovered how packing less for a hike, beyond a couple of energy bars or an apple, and a water bottle, can make the hiking experience less arduous and closer to the land. And if you’re backpacking out west, you still need a way to bear-proof your campsite. But thanks to the advent of what’s called Ultralight Camping and Hiking, the focus is less on things and more on what we get outdoors to do!

Ultralight principles emphasize carrying the lightest and simplest gear safely possible for a given trip. The goal is to cover longer distances per day with less wear and tear on the body, and particularly over the course of a long through-hike like the Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trail, that can make a difference.

In our reading this morning from Matthew, Jesus instructs his disciples to travel light. Ultralight. He’s been preaching, teaching, healing, and casting out demons as a growing crowd follows him throughout the countryside. He now has so much to do that he’s reached the point where he’s calling others to be involved in this work, and he starts with the twelve disciples—essentially, putting an expedition together for a trek through the Galilean wilderness, if you will.

And so, as he sends them out, he not only gives them authority to do what he does and say what he says, he also gives them strict orders about where to go and what to take. And he says, essentially, “Love before luggage. You need to give people the opportunity to receive you and provide for you, because that will tell you if they’re receptive to what you’ve come to offer.” They’re on a mission, and the mission is what dictates what to take and what to leave home.

Ever notice how being preoccupied with an exhaustive packing list is driven by fear of not having something? The same is true of our lives, particularly as people of faith. It’s not that we’re supposed to deprive ourselves of what we need; but a preoccupation with things can close us off to other people, and the value of relationships, which are Jesus’ stock in trade, and therefore ours, as well.

Much of the recent literature on Ultralight camping and hiking is focused on being intentional and strategic in choosing gear. To illustrate the difference in Ultralight’s orientation toward stuff, compare the difference in what’s called “base pack weight”—the weight of the pack, plus the gear it’s carrying, excluding consumables such as food, water and fuel. Traditional backpacks can range anywhere from over 30 pounds to upwards of more than 60; Ultralight packs aim for below 20 to as low as 10 pounds! To do this, Ultralight says do things like the following:

Reduce each item’s weight, weigh everything, carry fewer items.
Share gear with others, swap gear for skills – use well what you have.
Rethink, reduce, repackage to take exactly what you need; no extra.
Pack items that will serve more than one purpose.

Jesus is very specific in telling his disciples what to take and not to take on their journey. Understand what a change this outfitting talk would’ve been for these fishermen, tax collectors, and others who had never had to even think of traveling light, much less do cold-calling on communities where they might be rejected outright, even attacked. But if they’d been weighed down by their luggage, even a quick escape from an inhospitable town would’ve been more difficult.

On our faith journey, we need to travel light, too. You may never hike or do backcountry camping, but you intuitively understand how things get in the way of living life faithfully, rather than making it possible. This is especially true in communities. Traveling “ultralight with Jesus” frees us up to focus on relationships, and sharing, and creativity—and it frees us from the tyranny of money and possessions, restoring right perspective on them as tools that God can use to heal the world and spread the liberating Good News through us.

Today is Pledge Sunday, when we recommit our life and our living, in specific ways, to what God will accomplish in the coming year as we live out our mission as “seekers and servants, growing in God’s transforming love.”

Amen.