2 Kings 5: 1-14
I have a clip for you this morning. Don’t worry. It is not the press conference about P.K. Subban’s trade. It comes from the movie Up in the Air in which George Clooney plays a man whose job is to travel across the United States to fire people. That’s what he does. He flies in, gets to the office of some company, fires those who has to be fired, and he flies out to his next assignment. In the following clip, the character explains to his new assistant, and potential love interest, one of his ultimate goals in life.
I have 10 million miles. I got my Ph.D. in astrophysics from Harvard. I was named the volunteer of the year in 2005. I am in charge of my company’s sales department. I was the chair of the Planning & Agenda Committee of the 41st General Council of the United Church of Canada. Those kinds of statements regularly pop in our conversations because we live in a world in which position, status, diplomas and titles give a sense of worth to an individual. Usually, when we meet someone new, these are the kind of information we exchange first. We know they do not tell the full story of a person. And yet, we find these facts very important and we value them. One reason for this might be that our accomplishments give us small perks here and there. They make us feel special and unique. We like the prestige and credibility that come with them. They make us feel powerful, different and, let’s be honest, a little better than the rest of the people.
In today’s reading from the second book of Kings, we meet Naaman. Naaman was the commander in chief of the army of the king of Aram, one of Israel’s major enemies at that time. This general was a big shot, surely a respected celebrity because he fought and won many battles for his people. All his accomplishments made him a powerful man. Naaman was highly favoured by his king. I would not be surprised if they were on a first name basis. He was also a rich man who did not travel light. For his trip to the kingdom of Israel, we are told he brought with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten full sets of sumptuous garments. It is always difficult to calculate in modern terms just how much all this would be. Let us just say the 6,000 shekels was the equivalent of 150 pounds of gold and the ten talents of silver must have weighed some 750 pounds. So, you can use your imagination.
Naaman had everything for him: power, fame, wealth, a wife… The only thing missing in his life was health. The great warrior was a leper. We always have to be careful when we read the words leper and leprosy in the Bible, because they translate a Hebrew concept that includes several skin diseases, some of them being incurable. Regardless of Naaman’s real affliction, skin disease is an embarrassing condition because it is very hard to hide. It is not like diabetes. It is in your face all the time, quite literally sometimes. No wonder when Naaman learns that a prophet in the town of Samaria can heal him, he decides to look for this Elisha. After all, he could afford the best cure possible. What is the point to have all this power and wealth if you cannot pull one string or two so you can obtain what you need?
Naaman finally arrives at Elisha’s house with all his horses and chariots. But surprisingly, the prophet does not come out to meet his guest. Instead Elisha sends a simple messenger to tell the renowned military officer to wash himself seven times in the Jordan River. Naaman is not particularly happy by this apparent lack of respect. After all, he might be a leper, but he is still Naama, the great general, the nightmare of his enemies and the first among his own people. This so-called prophet could have made an effort. He could have come out of his shack and do something, I do not know, like calling upon the name of his god, wave his hands over his scars or utter some magical mumbo-jumbo in a strange language, anything that would be impressive, dramatic and appropriate for a man of his rank. But, no! Go soak yourself in the nearby muddy river, as if there is no rivers back home, as if he never washed his body before. Naaman is not staying there and being humiliated further. He has spent too long building his reputation for greatness, too long accumulating his vast wealth to be treated like this.
Today’s adventure could have easily ended here. Naaman would still be considered a leper. The kingdoms Israel and Aram would once again be at war due to this diplomatic incident and who knows what would have happened to Elisha. However, the dramatic fulfilling of this story does occur through the interventions of all the small and unnamed people we hardly notice when we read of this text. They are the ones who move things along. Without a young slave girl, Naaman would never have heard of Elisha and look for him. Without Elisha’s messenger, he would not know the cure for his disease. Without his servants, Naaman would never be cured. They are the ones who understand the possibility that the moment holds. They are the ones who coax their master Naaman into forgetting his own importance and going for what will really matter. They are the ones who point that Naaman would likely stand on one foot for a day or recite sacred texts backward if the prophet asked him. So what is the big deal with a quick wash in a small body of water? What does he have to lose? At the end of the day, the ones who live their lives in the shadow of power and magnificence are the main reason for the materialization of transformation and renewal.
Too often most of us assume we are not smart or important enough to make a difference in the world. We believe it is a privilege reserved for those who are rich, powerful or holding prestigious offices like a president or a prime minister. We believe history is written by famous individuals and families after whom buildings will be named in the future. We believe that people like you and I cannot influence our world. We cannot do anything because we are not in charge. We do not have any power, prestige or credibility. We do not have 10 million miles in our account, a Ph.D. from a prestigious university or an award that would give us name recognition.
However today’s story teaches us otherwise. After all who makes things happen? Who are the real heroes? Who has real power? Yes, power. Power is often not what we imagine or assume. It can take many shapes, be found in diverse places and is accessible to most of us. For example, there is real power in the courage of speaking up against the unjust redistribution of resources in our society. There is real power in the perseverance of writing regularly letters denouncing the violation of human rights by repressive regimes. There is real power in the determination to raise money to bring families of refugees in Canada. There is real power in the hope of our prayers for a just and peaceful world. In the long run, nobody will probably know what we have done. Nobody might remember our names. But it does not matter. We used our power to change our neighbourhood. We use our power to create a better world for all God’s children. We use our power because it is what God calls us to do.
Like it happens so often in the Bible, the story of Naaman is a clash between the famous and the nameless, between those who have privileges and those who can see beyond them. We are reminded that we can indulge ourselves in our resources, assets and titles to the point they become a goal in itself, to the point they distract us from what is really important for us. On some days, we need to open our minds and listen to those who have the power and the wisdom to see the opportunities surrounding us. On some days, we need to stop hoarding our points and to use them to do something meaningful. Amen.
1 Kings 17: 8-16
A week ago I attended the annual general meeting of the Montreal & Ottawa Conference, which is the gathering of leaders of United Church congregations from Ottawa/Brockville to the end of the province of Quebec. On that day, there were many reports, one of them being finances. This presentation felt like… a disaster movie when one character suddenly stands up and starts yelling, ‘We’re doomed! We all goona to die!” The chair of finances did not actually say that, but you understand the feeling. Like the wide majority of denominations in North America, our main focus seems to rest on budget, membership and scarcity because young people do not give money to the church as much as their parents did in the past. Even we, ministers, sometimes ask one another how big our deficit will be this year. Are yours bigger than mine? How can we buy a few more years before we have to close the doors of our congregations? Why should we look for new initiatives and programs when the pews of our churches are empty on Sunday mornings? We have nothing left. Let’s have one more pot-luck before shutting down operations.
This sort of attitude makes me think of today’s reading from 1st Book of Kings. Here, we meet the great prophet Elijah in the middle of a longer story. Just to help you, in a nutshell, Elijah went to King Ahab and Queen Jezebel to tell them straightforwardly they were not respecting the god of Israel and the people. For some reason, Ahab and Jezebel did not appreciate the comment. Then the prophet announced there would be no rain for a very long time, unless he, Elijah, says so. Once again, Ahab and Jezebel did not like that. Elijah had to flee to an oasis where he survived for a while. Eventually this place also dried up. As this morning’s reading begins, God sends the prophet to Zarephath and tells him to seek help from a widow. Elijah is commanded to find a nobody who has nothing – because regardless of the safety net that may exist to help widows in that area, the drought would have destroyed the effectiveness of that system. The prophet is told to rely on the kindness and generosity of a stranger, like some sort of antique Blanche DuBois.
So Elijah set off and goes to Zerephath. At the city gate he meets this widow, he calls her and says to her, “Bring me a little water in a vessel so that I may drink.” As she is leaving, he adds, “Bring me also a morsel of bread.” I can only imagine what went on in the head of the poor widow at that point. “Excuse me? You don’t introduce yourself. You don’t give me explanations. You just show up and you ask, I mean you order me to bring you water and bread. Who do you think you are? Are you the one who was around to watch my precious supply of flour and oil dwindle day-by-day and week-by-week? Are you the one who witnessed my beloved son slowly growing thinner and more listless? Are you the one who had to burry family and friends because drought and famine know no pity? No! Bring me water! Feed me! You’d better change your attitude mister or I will tell you where you could shove your morsel of bread.
No, the widow did not say this. Instead, she simply states the fact that she is gathering a couple of sticks, going back home, bake whatever she has, eat a last meal with her son and then die. She has absolutely nothing left to share with anyone. There is simply not enough to survive. She will die and she knows it. She is not panicking. She is not angry. She is not bitter. It is just the way it is. There is no hope. Death is the only possible outcome.
Elijah replies to her, “Don’t be afraid; go and do as you have said.” There will be enough for all. Why did the widow go to cook bread for the prophet? I do not know. I doubt she was really expecting a miracle. Maybe she was someone who was generous before the drought and famine began. Maybe she believed in the virtue of hospitality and sharing. Maybe she wanted her last moments on earth to reflect the values and core beliefs she held dear all her lifelong. We will never know why she did as Elijah asked her, as we will probably never know how her jar of meal never emptied nor did her jug of oil failed until rain came back. It just did. We just know that where was scarcity, sufficiency emerged. We just know that she survived.
Famine, hunger and poverty are terrible realities that contribute to the death of too many in our world. On top of these afflictions, the poor widow was also suffering from despair, hopelessness and emptiness. The scarcity surrounding her led her to believe that nothing was possible anymore. There was no option to consider. These days, many of us feel the same way. Somehow we convinced ourselves we have nothing left. We tried to hold on desperately to so many things, activities and practices that we have come to forget how God can tap into our lives when we expect it the less, how God can show us innovative possibilities in every moment of life, how God who is at the source of subatomic particles as well as distant galaxies can inspire us beyond our imagination. We forget because we allow our current and immediate condition to cloud our judgment. We forget to change our perspectives. We forget to look at our realities from a different point of view.
Too many churches like ours are looking for a saviour, a magic solution, a cool program or a 10 steeps process to remain alive. Too many of us are looking for a glimpse of success somewhere that can be exactly replicate inside our walls. We desperately search for a recipe we could follow so we could have bread long enough to survive this time of scarcity. However, as the widow teaches us, it is not about the quantity of ingredients at our disposal or the various techniques to bake bread. Abundance and life emerge when we open ourselves and when we are true to our values and core beliefs. For the disciples of Jesus the Christ, hospitality and outreach should not be about committees, documentation or money, but the desire to establish right relationships with all our brothers and sisters, connecting with those we cross on our roads, opening ourselves to difference and diversity. Helping one another should not be reduced to a moral obligation or the number of cans of beans we can bring to the church, but to look at the world from someone else’s point of view, opening our hearts again after we have deceived, or taking a risk that can to put ourselves in jeopardy because we truly believe it is the right thing to do. All of this will not magically change the balance in our bank accounts or fill all the vacancies in our structures. However, it may help us to discover we have more time, energy, and resources than we previously imagined.
On their website, First Church in Cambridge, a United Church of Christ congregation, does not present itself according to its budget or programs, but as followed: “Imagine a church that cannot stay put, but takes God’s welcome into the world. Imagine a church in conversation with other lives, other cultures, able to invite and be invited, to sit at other people’s tables, to learn and share the inestimable riches of God, to build relationships outside its walls. Imagine a church where the hands, hearts and feet of every member, young and old, are shaped for service, and a church that does not lack imagination about ways to use them. Imagine a church compelled by the Spirit to travel with Jesus, healing, reconciling and doing justice, a church filled with the daring and delight of the children of God. Imagine a church on the open road, agile and able, willing to follow Jesus into life’s margins, a church that gives itself away and asks nothing in return, a church mobilized for mission.
When we stop feeding our narratives with negative images and vocabulary, when we stop complaining about everything we cannot do, when we stop reminiscing about a Golden Age that probably never existed and will never exist in the future, we free ourselves from hopelessness and even allow ourselves to contemplate how God is still active in our world. When we look at all we actually have today, the various resources at our disposal and the unexpected generosity all around us, we can discover abundance, we can discover life, we can even discover hope. When we change the way we look at our world, our perspectives also change and we remember it is not what we have that makes a difference, but how we live.
Lamenting about the money we do not have or the way things used to be has become a cliché in our churches and institutions. Like the widow in Zarephath we have come to believe we will die because there is not enough. However, God challenges us to change our attitude and to transform our perceived impossibilities into creative new ways to share with others, to connect with those we meet, and to bring a message of hope to the world. We are called to find abundance in living our values, our beliefs and our faith every day of our lives. Amen.
1 Kings 19: 1-4, 8-15
Last week I was in Montreal for a course on Ministry of Supervision, in order to become an accredited supervisor for internships and field placements with the United Church. I am not done yet. It was just the first leg of my training. More will be done in the coming months. We had a great group of ministers from as far as Red Deer and PEI. We learn much about the theory of effective supervision and we tried to apply it through role playing and case studies. During the whole week we gave feedback and affirmations to one another and one question popped over and again: Where was God is all of this.
Where was God in all of this? Our group did not coin that phrase. Many have asked the same interrogation before us. Some wrestled with it two weeks ago after the horrible murder of 49 members of the LGBTQ community in Orlando. For others, this question came to them as it came to Elijah in today’s text. In this morning’s passage, the prophet is once again a hunted man on the run, hiding from Queen Jezebel. Elijah is one of those characters of the Bible that are always in the middle troubles or controversies. However, his eventful life finally caught up on him to the point where he is ready to simply give up. He is so exhausted and desperate that he tells God that he wants to die. Under a solitary broom tree, he begins to speak to the Holy One. ‘All that I have done so far seems hollow. Oh, I love you God. I worked hard as a prophet. I told the truth. I put my life in jeopardy. And for what? Sweet nothing! The other Israelites are not even trying to come back to you. They have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets. And yet, to be totally honest, the worst part of all of this is that I am disappointed at you, God. You left me alone. You sent no one to help me. You remain silent in my struggles. If only I could have met you face to face, maybe it would be different. But… pfff… Whatever…’
God hears Elijah’s plea and tells him, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” I can only imagine Elijah running outside and, remembering the stories of the past, expecting to encounter the Holy One in a big and spectacular manifestation of the divine. And we have to admit that Elijah was an expert on this matter. Up to this moment, he already predicted the beginning and the end of a three-year drought. He also raised a dead child back to life. Then he defeated alone 450 prophets of Baal, the god of the Philistines, by calling down God’s presence in a fire which burned up the entire altar he had made with cut-up bull, stones and all. Now that is big and spectacular!
Elijah is outside his cave and witnesses a great wind, “so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces”. Personally, as a good United Church minister, my first inclination would have been to say, ‘Wow! Let’s explore the presence of God in this manifestation of nature and pray for and with that wind.’ But, as the text says, “the Lord was not in the wind.” After the wind there was an earthquake. The metaphor about God is fairly easy here. God is this strong force that shakes us outside and inside. But the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was a fire. Fire can destroy but it also creates new spaces to build something different. Death, resurrection, that could work. But the Lord was not in the fire either. In all the mighty visible forces of nature Elijah experienced, the Holy One was not present.
Where was God in all of this? God was in the sound of sheer silence, says the text. Some of you might have understood that I am an extrovert. I know. It is hard to believe… Well, if it is true, if God can only be found in sheer silence, I just want to say please kill me right now because I am unable to sit still in silence for only an hour. I guarantee you I will go totally berserk. Ok. I would grant you I went a bit far with my last statement, but I believe I am not the only one who feel that way. We live in a world where the busyness of our lives and our myriad responsibilities leave little place for calm and silence. Between the ringing of the morning alarm and the spoken words on the late night news, we are surrounded by noise that wants to attract our attention. For many of us, silence is a void that ought to be filled with activities and projects. Standing still and doing nothing else than listening could be viewed suspiciously. We feel we have to do something, anything, as long as it produces some sounds to covert perceived emptiness.
A few months ago I read this wonderful article about stunts performed by ministers to attract new members in their churches and I said to myself that I should keep this because it might be useful in the future. Did I keep it? Of course, no. But I can still remember the story of this minister in the U.S. who would hold a worship service in an arena and then immediately turn into rodeo mode and ride a real bull. There was another minister who stayed at the top of a pole in front of his church for 30 days, not 30 hours, 30 days. Maybe you have also heard of this Roman Catholic priest in the Philippines who rode a hoverboard during his Christmas Eve mass. It went viral on YouTube, especially after he was suspended by his bishop. In our congregations, we might not be ready to go to these extremes, but many of us believe that if we publish beautiful and catchy ads in the local newspaper, start playing jazzy music during worship or organize dynamic and interactive Bible studies on Facebook we would fill our pews. If only we could do something to attract people’s attention, they would come to our youth and adult programs. The world would be able to see our close relationship with the Holy One if only we could develop the perfect sound bites, like the ones politicians and advertisers use to get our attention. Some of us have tried. However, despite our best intentions, with time we inevitably have discovered that God is not in any spectacular stunts nor catchy sound bites.
Where can we find God? Is the Holy One exclusively accessible in pure and total silence? I do not believe this is the message here. I would like to invite you to think of your garage or the garage of someone you know that is completely filled with objects. You can visualize this? In all that stuff, some objects are useful while other are simple junk. On some days, when we are looking for something specific, all we can see are the few huge objects. Sometimes we get frustrated because there is so much clutter in this garage we come to believe it is almost impossible to find anything. Well, our lives and our congregations are somehow like this. Our existences are often filled with so much noise and activities that we only notice the headlines, those who speak the loudest or the great tragedies of our world. We are frustrated because we cannot find the presence of God.
Sometimes, like Elijah, we have to learn to be patient. We need to look beyond the spectacular events and tragedies surrounding us. We need to find the courage to shed and let go of everything that belongs to the past, and start to clean up and organize our lives. Usually, we discover during those mundane moments that God is speaking to us. In fact, we discover that God never ceased to speak to us, but we were unable to hear because of all the clutter, because we were not paying attention, we were looking for spectacular and magic solutions or because we let ourselves distracted. But, when we allow ourselves to create empty spaces and silent moments, we can discover that God was in front of us all that time, just waiting for us to connect and be in a relationship.
When we wonder where is God in all of this, we are invited to recall the prophet Elijah who, at one point, felt discouraged, alone and forsaken by the Holy One. And if God cannot be found in the big, the spectacular and the noise, we called to remember that the Holy One is revealed in ways we often expect the least. We need to find the courage to proclaim that regardless of the events, how horrible and puzzling they could be, God is present in our world and will never be shut down. Thanks be to God and amen.