Sunday, June 5, 2016

Sermon: Getting To Know God

1 Kings 17:8-24
Getting to Know God
James Sledge                                                                                                   June 5, 2016

What does it mean to be the Church? Ask a hundred people and you might get a hundred different answers. No doubt there would be a lot of overlap, but there would probably be a good deal of variety and disagreement.
What if I instead asked, What does it mean to be the body of Christ? It’s just a different version of the original question, but I suspect that it shifts the answers somewhat.
Thinking of the Church as the living body of Christ reminds us that we’re called to respond to situations and events and people in the same way that Jesus would. I always thought those old, “What Would Jesus Do?” wristbands were hokey, but they did capture a truth about Church, that we are called to see things as Jesus did and respond as he did. And because Jesus is the human face of God, that means to see and respond as God does.
Of course, a deep knowledge and understanding of Jesus, of God, especially since there’re no gospel stories about whether to raise the minimum wage, provide universal health care, or about how many Syrian refugees to take in. Yet a lot of us Christians – and this is true for liberals, conservatives, and everywhere in between – tend to picture Jesus lining up neatly with what we think are our best and noblest and most deeply held convictions. We may even have a few supporting Bible verses, but our images of Jesus are very often constructed on an incredibly small about of data.

When I was ordained as a pastor, and again when I was installed as pastor here, I was asked a number of questions, all but the last identical to the questions asked of the elders and deacons ordained and installed for this congregation a few weeks ago. The first question is about the centrality of Jesus as Lord, as master, the one through whom I know the Triune God. The second question asks pastors, elders and deacons, “Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word to you?”[1]
Notice that the question makes a point of saying the Old Testament as well as the New is a “witness to Jesus.” Yet we pastors and church leaders have often done a terrible job helping congregations get to know the Jesus witnessed to in the Old Testament. And that’s a real problem considering that the Old Testament makes up a good two thirds of the Bible.
I don’t know if that’s what prompted Diane to suggest a summer of preaching the Old Testament readings, but that is a great way for us to get to know God, to know Jesus, more deeply. Take our Old Testament reading for today. On the one hand it reports things people might think typical of a Bible story. In the midst of a drought and famine, God’s prophet is miraculously fed, along with a widow and her son who have taken the prophet in. And to add to the miracle count, Elijah revives the widow’s son when he dies. The Bible says God can do miracles. Not much of a news flash there.
But if you look just a bit deeper, not skimming the story like a newspaper but reading it like the deeply nuanced narrative that it is, you will find some real surprises, starting with the story’s location. Elijah has been hiding in the wilderness, but when the water dries up, God sends him to Zarephath, outside the borders of Israel, home territory of the evil Queen Jezebel and her god Baal, whose worship Jezebel has promoted in Israel, even persecuting priests and prophets of YHWH such as Elijah.
Then we learn Elijah is sent to a widow. Widows were in precarious economic straights at the best of times, but this was a time of famine. What a strange choice to shelter Elijah.
The prophet must have been a frightening sight, a wild man who had been living out in the wilderness. And the widow clearly realizes that he is the prophet of a foreign god. Yet she quickly goes to bring him water. Only when Elijah asks for bread do we learn how bad things are. She is near death, with only enough meal to make a few last bites for her and her son.
Don’t worry, Elijah says. Feed me first, then you and your son, and all will be well.
A foreigner, from a different religion, shows up and asks you to share your last meal with him. Hospitality is a big part of Middle Eastern culture, but this is ridiculous. Yet the widow does as Elijah asks.
The story is odd and surprising enough at this point, but it is not done. The widow’s son becomes ill and dies. No doubt some of the neighbors mumbled to each other about how this was what happens when you take in a foreigner who’s a prophet to a foreign god. Even the widow suspects Elijah is to blame. She should never have messed with a foreign holy man.
Curiously, Elijah takes up the widow’s cause. He rails against God, crying out, “O YHWH my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” And it is calamity. Widows past childbearing years were of little count in the ancient world, and those without male children were often reduced to begging, living difficult, short lives.
Elijah is angry at God for this turn of events, but Elijah also knows God more deeply than most, and so he imagines, even expects that God will look kindly on the plight of this widow, this foreigner who presumably is a worshiper of Baal. And God revives the child.
Foreigners, a widow, hospitality to strangers, God’s special concern for the weak and the vulnerable. So many issues dear to God’s heart are on display here. In Luke’s gospel, when Jesus visits his hometown of Nazareth, he recalls this story to remind his old neighbors of God’s concern for the outsider. And they try to kill him.
A Facebook friend shared a photo this week originally posted by “Joe the Plumber.” It was captioned, “Tennessee bill bans Islam in schools. What do you think?” A handful of friends “liked” it, and one commented, “Yeah baby!” I don’t believe these folks know Jesus, know God, very well.
And so I’ll loop back to my question from the start of this sermon. What does it mean to be the Church? What does it mean for you and for us together to be the body of Christ?

All praise and glory to the one who came to show us the heart of God and what it means to be fully alive as a son or daughter or God.

[1] Book of Order 2015-217: The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Part II, W-4.4003

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