Monday, June 20, 2016

June 19, 2016 Sermon: "Trusting God's Call"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: 1 Kings 19.1-15a
NT: Luke 5.27-32
            Last week I told you that things were about to get real—and by that let me clearly say that it was about to hit the fan—between Elijah, Ahab, and Jezebel.  Elijah was one of God’s most revered prophets.  Ahab and Jezebel were two of God’s most defiled royals.  Prophets, kings, and queens were supposed to work together like governors and senators and delegates…and that’s exactly how dysfunctional their relationship was.  Ahab, Elijah, & Jezebel were not cordial.  They did not agree to disagree.  They did not say nice things about one another to mutual friends.  They lived at each other’s throat. 
            Verse 1.  Most of the time, Elijah had the upper hand.  If you read chapter 18, you see that Elijah bested 400 of Ahab’s prophets and then outran the king’s chariots in a getaway which would make Smoky & the Bandit proud.  But the sheriff is about to change the game. 
            Verse 2.  Jezebel decides to kill Elijah.  We know from last week’s story that when Jezebel sets her mind to something, she does it.  If we know that just from reading the story, Elijah knew it in real time.  Jezebel was not to be trifled with. 
            Verse 3.  He was so afraid that he fled 100 miles…on foot.  Few people know that kind of fear.  It would be like packing your bags and fleeing to rural Russia today.  Taking such a large step would signal real fear for your life.
            Verse 4.   Elijah, who has spoken truth to power for God for years, who has gone toe to toe with Ahab & Jezebel at every chance, suddenly gives up.  He wants to die so he doesn’t have to run anymore.  He’s done with all the mayhem his life has become.    
            Verse 5-8.  Sometimes if I want my dogs to go somewhere they don’t really want to go, I’ll lead them with a trail of milk bones along the way.  God does the same to Elijah…all the way to the destination God has in mind for him. 
            Verse 9-10.  Elijah must have been incredulous.  He surely wanted to say, “What am I doing here?  YOU sent me here!”  But he put his big boy pants on and said something more professional.  “I have tried my best to do your work, God, and now they want to kill me for it.” 
            Verse 11-12.  Elijah fears for his life.  This is his moment of need, and he expects God to speak to him loud and clear with a message.  After all, that is how their relationship works.  God speaks, and Elijah relays the message.  Without hearing from God, Elijah cannot do his job.  God tells him to step outside the cave and listen.  A mighty wind blows, but Elijah does not go outside to listen.  A towering earthquake shakes the ground, but Elijah does not go outside to listen.  A crackling fire wrecks the desert, but Elijah does not go outside to listen.  This is how it works.  God speaks, and Elijah listens.  God often speaks in burning bushes and bolts of fire and earthquakes that raise the dead.  But Elijah pays no attention to any of that…until…he hears the sound of the sheer silence. 
            Verse 13.  The still, small voice of God speaks, and Elijah finally comes outside to listen.  In a rushed and loud world, we can certainly identify with Elijah’s curiosity at the sound of sheer silence and what it might mean.  God says again, “Why are you here?” 
            Verse 14.  If you’re feeling déjà vu, then you’re paying attention.  Elijah responds, word for word, the same way he does before.  “I have tried my best to do your work, God, and now they want to kill me for it.” 
            Verse 15.  God says, “Ok, now get back there.”  What?  You mean to tell me that’s what God has to say?  After the buildup of the100-mile chase and the wind and the earthquake and the fire and the sheer silence, God tells his best prophet who’s hit rock bottom, “Get back there where you came from and do it again?”  How is that compassionate, loving, or supportive?  How is that fitting of God the Father? 
            Because Elijah never should’ve walked away in the first place.  God called him to a do a certain job at a certain time, and a little trash talking had Elijah ready to walk away.  Have you ever doubted God’s call on your life?  Do you ever want to hit the reset button and start again?  Do you sometimes just want the wind and the fire and the earthquakes to be replaced by the sound of sheer silence…so you’ll be able to hear clearly exactly what God wants for you? 
            When you’re ready to give up before the race is over…that is precisely when you need somebody who loves you and is on your side to remind you that it gets better.  God the Father is doing that very thing for Elijah.  Pushing him to fulfill his calling and reminding him that he’s doing the right thing. 

            God placed a call on your life many moons ago.  We all stray from that call sometimes, and we may even have to make a 100-mile journey just to realize where we were is where we need to be.  But God’s call is true.  Trust it.  Trust God’s call on your life.  Amen.   

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Stephen Baldwin
OT: 1 Kings 21.1-21a
NT: Luke 7.36-39
The Blessing of Limits (Part 2)

            Last week, we talked about the blessing of limits.  Those things that we don’t have or can’t do or weren’t gifted with…they are limitations, and they are blessings.  God created all of us with limits, for our own good.  That message resonated better at our nursing home service than it did with you all, because they know what it’s like to be limited…and they know that they are still blessed!  Those with greater limits seem to have learned to appreciate what they do have more than most of us.  This is part two of that message.                    There is a void in you.  Something is missing.  You confront this void everyday of your life.  Maybe it involves your family or health or past. It doesn’t matter how often you pray or come to church, you will never escape it. It doesn’t matter how hard you try to fill it, you never will satisfy it.  We are all missing something in our lives. Our future depends on how we handle it.  The yearning to fill it can take over with an insatiable thirst for more.  More clothes, more money, more drugs, more alcohol, more work, more power.  I saved the worst for last.  Power.  We always want more.     
In part, the desire to fill what is missing and discover more is what makes us great.  It led us to explore mountains and oceans and outer space.  It led us to build nations and write constitutions and secure the pursuit of happiness for all of God’s children here on earth. 
Yet the same drive for more also makes us vulnerable.  If we allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking that we can fill our void by our own achievements, then we become King Ahab from today’s story, casting aside the needs of others in an unending quest to satisfy our own greedy desires. 
Ahab was a king from the line of David.  His father ruled for 100 years.  Ahab took the reins after his father died, ruling over the people with his wife Jezebel at his side.  In the story, it’s hard to distinguish one from another, as they feed off one another and act in each other’s name always seeking more and more and more from their people. 
Ahab sees a vineyard near his house which he’d like to turn into a garden.  Never mind that it’s a vineyard, not a garden.  Never mind that he already owns vineyards and gardens.  Never mind that the vineyard belongs to Naboth and was given to him by his father who got it from his father who got it from his father who got it as a gift from God to settle in the promised land many moons ago.  It was Naboth’s birthright, and Ahab asks him to forsake it on the king’s whim.  Ahab sees it, he wants it, and he goes to get it. 
He makes Naboth a handsome offer.  He says, “I’ll trade you your vineyard for a much bigger and better one.  Or, if you prefer, I’ll give you whatever price you want for yours.  You name the price.”  If someone came along and offered to trade you your house here in Ronceverte for a much bigger one they owned at the Greenbrier Sporting Club, wouldn’t you be tempted?  Or if they said to name your price and you could get ten times the value of your property, wouldn’t you be tempted? 
Surely, Naboth was.  But he confidently said no all the same.  He believed that particular land was a gift from God and to sell it would be to betray the gift of God and his family who cared for it for many generations.  So he said no.  To the king. 
In a very un-kingly moment, Ahab goes to his room and cries.  We just thought that was hysterical in Bible Study!  The big bad king goes to his room and sulks when the farmer tells him no. 
His wife, Jezebel, hatches a plan to get Ahab what he wants.  She uses Ahab’s name, calls for an assembly, seats two scoundrels by Naboth, has them accuse him of cursing God and king, and then they kill Naboth. 
Ahab comes out of his room, stops crying, and goes to fill that void  deep down in his soul the only way he knows how.  He goes to get his land now that Naboth is dead.  But when he arrives, God has sent the prophet Elijah…with a message. 
            “Have you killed?  Have you stolen land that is not yours?  I will bring disaster on you.” 
            Harsh words?  Yes.  The king was given power in order to care for and protect the people, not to oppress and kill them.  And God would not stand for it.  God told Ahab as clearly as possible through the prophet Ahab that he would pay for his sins. 
            Are these harsh words also a warning for us?  Yes.  Ahab is not the only self-centered, greedy human being to ever walk the planet.  Jezebel is not the first person to desire power, and she won’t be the last.  This is a warning for those who do hold power over peoples and nations to use that power for God’s good purposes, not for our own.  This is also a warning for us.  We may not rule over lands and countries, but we all have power over others.  And if we use that power unjustly, there will be dire consequences. 
            Friends, there is a limit in blessings.  Instead of trying to fill our voids over and over again with that which will not satisfy, let us learn to be content with ourselves as we are.  God created us with limits.  If that’s good enough for God, shouldn’t it be good enough for us?  Amen.          

Monday, June 6, 2016

June 5, 2016 Sermon: "A Place in the World"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: 1 Kings 17.17-24
NT: Luke 7.11-17
A Place in the World

                In the ancient world, people didn’t have retirement accounts; they had children.  Their children were their retirement.  With short life spans, no nursing homes, and no 401Ks, the only thing you could count on to care for you late in life was your child. 
                So who would care for the widow in today’s story?  Her husband had already died.  Jesus happened upon her son’s funeral as they were carrying the body in a casket through a small town.  Since they’re following Jewish burial customs, the town must have been Jewish.  Anybody paying attention would know what this woman now faced.  She was on her own.  That’s probably why the crowd in the funeral procession was so large.  The whole town came out to support her.  No job.  No spouse.  No children. No retirement account or savings.  She was destitute. 
                You might expect her to ask Jesus for help.  That’s how most healing stories go.  But she’s so blinded by grief that she doesn’t even see him.  He sees her.  He sees her situation.  He heals her son, he restores her fortunes, he gives them a house, he provides the boy a job…no, he doesn’t do those things.  This isn’t television and Jesus isn’t Oprah! 
He restores her son’s life.  That is something important and powerful and miraculous, but that is all he does.  He doesn’t give her the world.  He just gives her a place in it.  The rest is up to the boy and his mother. 
I officiated a wedding several months ago, and the groom said his own vows to the bride.  He made heartfelt vows that were quite beautiful, but one particular line caught my attention.  He told her, “I want to take care of you.  I want to provide for your every need.”  And when he said that, she melted.  Her eyes welled with tears, her face grew bright with a smile, and she melted. 
While I appreciate the sincerity of that vow, I question it.  As much as we’d all like to be taken care of by our spouse or our parents or our employers or by God, there is a blessing in limits. 
When Jesus encounters a destitute widow, he does not give her the world.  He gives her a place in it once again.  His assistance to her is limited.  It leaves a hole which she must fill in, which her son must fill in. 
I thought I knew how to handle money…until I went away to college.  After my first semester, I’d blown through my checking account.  Life in the big city is exciting after growing up in a small town.  There’s a blessing in limits.  I learned how to handle money after that.
Craig Barnes is the dean of Princeton Theological Seminary.  Last week he spoke to graduates about the blessing of limits.  He reminded them that when God created us--before we fell from grace--we were given a limitation.  Do anything you want…just don’t eat from that one tree.  Limits are supposed to be a blessing. 
So the next time you’ve had a bad day…the next time your joints creak a little louder…the next time you see that new thing you want so badly…the next time you have to wait in line longer than you’d expected…remember that God gave us limits from the start, for our own good. 

How do we know that?  Because the widow, her son, and her community didn’t expect Jesus to give them the world; they thanked him for giving them a place in it.  Thanks be to God for having a place in the world.  Amen.    

May 29, 2016 Sermon: "Healing Hurts"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Psalm 96
NT: Luke 7.1-10
Healing Hurts  

            If a friend asks you for a favor, do you help?  Sure, of course.  If a friend of a friend asks for a favor, do you help?  Well, maybe.  Depends.  What if an enemy, or even a friend of an enemy, asks for your help?  Highly doubtful.   
            Who’s asking matters more than what they’re asking for, doesn’t it?  If your parent or spouse asks you to do something, you don’t have much choice.  You do it.  If a friend asks, you’re happy to help and put yourself on the line for them.  But putting ourselves on the line for someone we don’t know, well that’s a different matter.  And if that someone happens to be an enemy, then forget about it. 
I’m not talking out of school here, am I?  That’s human nature.  We are inclined to help our friends and we are not inclined to help our enemies.  That’s no secret or revelation.  It’s just the way things are.  But is it the way Jesus wants things to be? 
            Today’s reading comes just after much of Jesus’ main teachings—Sermon the Mount, Beatitudes, & so forth.  He’s taught the disciples how to be a Christian, and in our story he’s given an opportunity to show them when asked for a favor.
Verses 1-3.   Who is this centurion?  A centurion was an officer of the Roman army, put in charge of about 80 soldiers.  It was a middle management position. Anyone in that position would’ve been a Gentile, or a non-Jew.  Yet, surprisingly, he is respected by the Jewish community.  He knows elders in the church well enough to ask them for a favor, and they know him well enough to grant that favor.  A slave assigned to the centurion was gravely ill, and the centurion would stop at nothing to see the slave cured.  Why was this slave so highly valued?  We don’t know because the text doesn’t say.  And that’s a minor point compared to what the story’s purpose is. 
Verses 4-5.  The centurion’s friends go to Jesus, asking him for help.  They make their argument by saying, “He loves our people.”  Why would they have to say that?  Because we’re talking about a centurion--the local face of an occupying military force--who is by definition an enemy of the Jews.  The elders say although this man wears the uniform of their enemy, he is not their enemy.  After all, he put his unit of 80 men to work on the people’s behalf, building them a temple. 
Keep in mind Jesus was asked for these sorts of favors all the time.  People constantly stopped him asking for help.  The sick wanted Jesus to cure them; the blind wanted Jesus to make them see; the lame wanted Jesus to make them walk.  They asked for themselves.  But this centurion, this natural enemy of Jesus, asks for a favor not for himself but for his slave. 
Verses 6-8.  Apparently intrigued by the unique nature of the request, Jesus sets off on foot towards the centurion’s house.  Towards his enemy’s house.  An enemy who apparently has a heart.  Before he arrives the centurion sends his friends outside to say, “Don’t come in, for I’m not worthy to have you inside my house.”  But that’s not the end of it.  He’s not saying he doesn’t want Jesus’ help.  He just doesn’t think his house of worthy of Jesus’ presence.  So he continues, “I do know what it’s like to be in a chain of command.  I can tell someone to come, and they come.  I can tell them go, and they go.”  The implication is clear.  “You can command my slave’s life, and it will be done.” 
Verse 9.  Jesus is amazed at this man’s faith.  His enemy, a centurion, a Roman officer, places his faith in Jesus and says he believes that if Jesus orders the slave to be well, he will be well. 
Verse 10.  Jesus doesn’t visit the slave.  Doesn’t touch him.  Doesn’t even speak the word.  But the slave is well, for Jesus wills it.
If a friend asked you for a favor, you’d probably grant it.  But if an enemy asked, would you even consider it?  This is where the rubber hits the road.  This is where Christianity is put into practice, because until Christians act like Christ all we do is talk. 
Jesus taught his disciples earlier in Luke to love their enemies.  We’re all taught the same thing.  And it sounds great, but it’s nearly impossible to do.  So when Jesus finishes talking, he is presented with a live scenario of an enemy asking for a favor.  He grants it, showing that his love extends even to enemies, even to non-Jews, even to those who are outsiders to his faith.  Sometimes we read these stories so casually the radical nature of God’s will for our lives is lost on us.  Jesus doesn’t just talk about forgiving enemies; he heals enemies!  Jesus doesn’t just expect us to believe in forgiving enemies; he expects us to do it!      
A young slave’s life is restored not just by Jesus, but by an entire community who bands together, risking their own reputation and skin, to call in favors.  It takes a whole slew of people to make it work.    
Here’s the point.  Real healing hurts.  I’m not talking about miraculous healing & the stuff of fairy tales; I’m talking about real world, everyday healing in our broken relationships and our own broken souls.  I’m talking about enemies you have a hard time seeing in public and the enemy you sometimes don’t want to look at in the mirror.  I’m talking about what occupies our thoughts when we drive down the road and lay in bed at night.  Healing in those situations, with our enemies, means everyone involved has to give something up for it to work. 

It surely hurt Jesus to help the very man who oppressed his people, but he was willing to do it because the man showed faith and the community showed faith in the man.  Everyone sacrificed something for the greater good of helping someone in a world of hurt.  That is our calling as Christians today just the same as it was 2,000 years ago.  The names have changed.  So have the places…and the prices.  But our calling is just the same.  Love your neighbors.  Forgive your enemies.  Do favors for everyone, even if it hurts a little, because that’s what Jesus did.  Not just what he said to do.  What he did.  Amen.