2 Kings 2.1-14
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
2Now the LORD was going to take Elijah up to heaven in a windstorm, and Elijah and Elisha were leaving Gilgal. 2Elijah said to Elisha, "Stay here, because the LORD has sent me to Bethel." But Elisha said, "As the LORD lives and as you live, I won't leave you." So they went down to Bethel. 3The group of prophets from Bethel came out to Elisha. These prophets said to Elisha, "Do you know that the LORD is going to take your master away from you today?"
Elisha said, "Yes, I know. Don't talk about it!" 4Elijah said, "Elisha, stay here, because the LORD has sent me to Jericho." But Elisha said, "As the LORD lives and as you live, I won't leave you." So they went to Jericho. 5The group of prophets from Jericho approached Elisha and said to him, "Do you know that the LORD is going to take your master away from you today?" He said, "Yes, I know. Don't talk about it!" 6Elijah said to Elisha, "Stay here, because the LORD has sent me to the Jordan." But Elisha said, "As the LORD lives and as you live, I won't leave you." So both of them went on together. 7Fifty members from the group of prophets also went along, but they stood at a distance. Both Elijah and Elisha stood beside the Jordan River. 8Elijah then took his [mantle, his prophet’s] coat, rolled it up, and hit the water. Then the water was divided in two! Both of them crossed over on dry ground. 9When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, "What do you want me to do for you before I'm taken away from you?" Elisha said, "Let me have twice your spirit." 10Elijah said, "You've made a difficult request. If you can see me when I'm taken from you, then it will be yours. If you don't see me, it won't happen." 11They were walking along, talking, when suddenly a fiery chariot and fiery horses appeared and separated the two of them. Then Elijah went to heaven in a windstorm. 12Elisha was watching, and he cried out, "Oh, my father, my father! Israel's chariots and its riders!" When he could no longer see him, Elisha [in his deep grief] took hold of his clothes and ripped them in two.
13Then Elisha picked up the mantle, the coat, that had fallen from Elijah. He went back and stood beside the banks of the Jordan River. 14He took the [mantle] that had fallen from Elijah and hit the water. He said, "Where is the LORD, Elijah's God?" And when he hit the water, it divided in two! Then Elisha crossed over. [And on the other side he began his new journey as the lead prophet of Israel.]
Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 13113-13133).
For the Word of God in Scripture, for the Word of God among us, for the Word of God within us…Thanks be to God!
When I found this story in today’s lectionary texts, I was delighted to rediscover it and compelled to use it for my text. Delighted because it is a biblical story that I have told several times over the years. I love its drama of a journey toward the unknown, the mystical crossing of the river – twice! The dramatic image of the fiery chariots and horsemen or riders whisking Elijah into heaven in a whirlwind. I am moved by the humanity of the prophet, Elisha, as he deals with the impending departure/death of his mentor, his denial of the loss, his fierce loyalty, his grief and finally, his acceptance of a new role in the leadership of God’s people. I find the schools, the groups of prophets that nag him humorously and humanly irritating ….why do they need to rub it in that Elijah is not long for this world? Are they jealous of Elisha’s relationship with Elijah? Are they warning him about getting too caught up in the older prophet’s provocative ministry of social justice?
Beyond all these delightful storytelling speculations, I was compelled by the story because of the image of passing the mantle. Many of you have been in the bittersweet situation of anticipating retirement from a long-held profession, maybe wondering what legacy you leave? Most of us do not expect to be taken up into heaven by a whirlwind upon retirements.
Revisiting this story prompted me to ask myself, what is the mantle of ministry I will leave with this community when I leave the staff? I have some ideas and will share those over the coming months. I know that I am not a legendary, trouble-making prophet like Elijah. Far from it! I do not confront kings about their apostasy and challenge them to turn back to God. I have not raised a child from the dead as Elijah raised the son of the widow of Zarephath. I have not been given the foresight to prophesy the beginning and end of a long drought threatening the lives of the people. Those were Elijah’s calling, not mine. I do try to speak the word of the Holy One given to me each time I preach, to lead with integrity and to help us all discover the faith of that divine spark of light living within each of us.
My contemplation of passing a mantle went beyond myself to the whole of our community. I believe we have been passed a mantle of ministry in our communal experience of the last two years. The pandemic was a Big Pause that caused a Big Shift in the ministries of our church. It was a shift like the shifting of tectonic plates. We have a new landscape of ministry now. It is vaguely familiar and very unfamiliar all at once. Like it or not, we were passed the mantle of Change with all the opportunity and risks and invitations to imagination that change requires.
Elisha asked for a double portion of Elijah’s prophetic spirit so that he could pick up the mantle of the great prophet’s leadership. We did not ask for such a daunting gift…but we were handed it anyway. A great mantle of Change was draped over the shoulders of the church universal, not just Plymouth, by the great Pause of the pandemic during which we experienced the stark realities of a deathly virus sickening and killing so many along with a new view of the racism, the political and economic divisions in our country. Along with the epidemic of gun violence. Along with an urgent vision of the climate crisis and our responsibilities toward our mother, Earth. Like it or not, we received a double portion of the Holy Spirit’s challenge to Change. So much so that it is dizzying and overwhelming at times. As Plymouth, our first inclination is to rush to help those affected by these seismic changes. This is what we did before the pandemic and it our passion to help the least of these and to advocate for justice.
Yet the double portion of the Holy Spirit’s challenge to holy change starts at home. What is the phrase? Think globally, act locally. Even as we are so very sensitive and responsive to the dramatic changes in the social justice landscape of our times, our ways of being church together and of being beloved community have to be tended and rebuilt as well for the sake of God’s realm here and now.
Wow, Jane Anne! I think you might be a bit caught up in the drama of this biblical legend….its not that Big, is it? We are gathering our programs and fellowship groups and outreach ministries and worship services back together despite the seemingly never-ending cycle of masking and unmasking and new rounds of vaccines.
Yes, we are picking our way through the changes of this tectonic shift. However, I believe that the Holy Spirit is calling us to a bigger challenge than trying to put the pieces of what we used to do back together with extra strength Elmer’s glue. The Holy Spirit is calling us to envision and build a new spirit of community that we have only yet glimpsed. This may entail leaving behind old programs or outdated ways of working if they no longer serve us. It will include new and unexpected ways of growing together in Christian formation, in service and even in fellowship. Along with the gift of a double portion of Holy Change comes a double portion of Holy Opportunity for greater Holy Imagination. Following the love and justice of Jesus in ways we might have never imagined before. Will we accept this powerful mantle, this double portion of Change, Opportunity and Imagination? Or will we leave it lying on the ground because we are too afraid to pick it up?
If we do not tend to the opportunity for holy change in our church – and some of the changes will be small and some large and most will be in between – then the church will not be here, healthy and strong, for us to rely on in coming years. Our strength and stamina for social justice change, for all that life throws at us, comes from the Holy One who we discover within us in the midst of the Beloved Community. Even as we tend our own souls for the work we called to do, we must tend the soul, the body and structure of our church so that it is strong for the work God is calling us to do together. Self care.
What did Elisha do first at his moment of great change, before he picked up the mantle? He grieved and he mourned the loss of his beloved mentor, Elijah. He cried out in shock and pain. He tore his garments in two…a very common sign of mourning and grief in biblical times. He could not move forward until he acknowledged his grief and mourned. He let his heart break. We need to do the same.
Our hearts, as individuals and as a community, are breaking for so many reasons already – because of gun violence, because the violence against creation, because of the implications of undoing Roe versus Wade, because of so many things in our personal lives. Take a moment to acknowledge these griefs. Griefs are never separate from one another. They build upon one another. New grief brings up old grief. And know that each breaking heart, each wounded soul in this room is precious to the Holy One.
As you acknowledge your personal grief, turn to what is breaking your heart because of the changes forced upon our church community by the pandemic? (Or if you were not have with Plymouth through the pandemic, what breaks your heart about your pandemic experience ?) The loss of friends who have found another community for worship? The loss of being able to attend the memorial service of a congregation friend or a friend’s family member? The many days of isolation? The sense of disconnection that still lingers? The loss of socialization and community for your children and youth? Is anger coming up instead of heart break? Anger comes with grief. If you feel angry that’s okay.
Take a long moment here in the safety of this sanctuary to let your heart break. If tears come, let them flow. If rage comes, clench and unclench your hands so you can let it move through your system. Our bodies are holding so much heart break and they need release. Hold your hands in front of you, cupped and turned up. Put your griefs into your hands and offer them to God. (Long pause……. 90 seconds.)
Take some deep breaths. Shake it out. Hold your hands in front of you again Now take a moment to remember all the things you are grateful for in our life together as a beloved community. In your life in the world. What makes your heart sing with gratitude? Hold these things in your hands. Offer them to the Holy One. Hold them in your heart. (Pause ….. 60 seconds)
Deep breath. Open your eyes gently. Come back to this space consciously. I hope you will reflect on these last moments at some time during the day or week ahead. I encourage you to share what came up for you with a partner, a friend, your journal. We cannot move effectively into our new Holy Spirit challenge of Change unless we first move through the sludge of our grief. We will get stuck if we don’t acknowledge what we feel. This process of grief and mourning goes hand in hand with visioning and imagining new actions of justice and building anew. Grief and gratitude never happen in a linear narrative. We will be spiraling through acknowledging our grief and moving into God’s newness for years to come. That is how life works.
As I end this morning, I leave you with a question I have borrowed from marine biologist and social justice activist, Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: “What if we get it right?” As we pick up this double portion of God’s Holy Spirit calling us to Change, can we let ourselves be led by what we already know how to do, and by what we have it in us to save? How do we run full-tilt towards what we love and what delights us about our life together as the Body of Christ? Guided by the holy work of our strategic plan as well as the holy surprises of the Spirit, let’s us take up the mantle of change and imagine our church community in the future through the question, “What if we get it right?” Amen.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2022 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
Rev. Dr. Ronald Patterson
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, CO
I Kings 8:1,6,10-11, 22-30, 41-43
Several weeks ago, on my first Sunday with you, I had one of those moments. I had the sense that I was suddenly in what the saints call a thin place. That Sunday was the first time I had been in a meeting house for worship in over a year. It moved me to tears because I had not realized how desperately needed and deeply missed communal worship had been. To sing my faith with others, to listen to a group of people who are happy to see one another, to hear the words of the Bible in a community on a shared journey had been absent from my life since a year ago March. It was understandable and necessary, and zoom and live stream were soul savers, but it just was not the same. Zoom is sort of like eating an ear of sweet corn or a half-ripe tomato shipped up from Florida in January.
And I have heard similar thoughts expressed by others around the country as congregations bolstered by the vaccinated; gather, as those who understand that loving Jesus, means loving your neighbor enough to be vaccinated, or to wear a mask, as they too begin taking baby steps toward gradual reopening.
We aren’t there yet. We are still taking precautions, listening to experts, and attempting to use the best information available. Given the Delta variant, this whole business is not easy. We are not out of the woods yet. But as people of faith, we know that we are on a journey and as St. John Lennon said, “Everything will be okay in the end, and if it’s not okay it’s not the end."
This congregation has wisely prepared for this gradual reopening, and I am really impressed that your leaders have embraced possibility with the new lighting on the way and the new cameras so that what we do here can be multiplied through media to enlarge our faith family and leave no one behind. We don’t know what might come next, but what you have done makes what might be less challenging. So let me say: “Thank you!”
Let’s start with a question: Do any of you collect things? Stamps? Beer cans? Barbie dolls? I collect church buildings and other places of worship. When we travel, I visit churches. I visit old churches, unusual churches, historic churches, and new churches. I visit great cathedrals or adobe mission buildings or churches with the simple colonial lines of a New England meeting house. And for some reason, I usually remember any church I visit or even pass by and often, when I am driving, I navigate by churches—once I’ve seen a particular church building, I just don’t forget it.
Over the years, a few of the people I have traveled with, including my beloved, have grown tired of this fixation. I tour an old city from steeple to steeple. Years ago, traveling with four college friends touring Rome from church to church to church, they figured out what I was up to and the whole group rebelled and took my map away. They had had enough while I was just getting started. On another trip I learned that the great gothic cathedral in Cologne, Germany is surrounded by a dozen large Romanesque Churches, and I became obsessed with visiting all twelve.
If I had a bumper sticker on my backside it might say: “Edifice Obsessed” or “This Vehicle Stops at All Houses of Worship.” Now before you think that this is a sermon about my personal neurosis, let’s engage the text.
Today we heard another piece written by the anonymous Hebrew storyteller who’s book we name I Kings. We heard the story of the dedication of the first fixed non-movable worship space in our religious tradition—the Temple in Jerusalem built by King Solomon. And it is an interesting story, full of things to consider.
Let me point out a few. According to this story, the priests cook up a grand celebration for the dedication of the temple. They bring the Ark of the Covenant into the Holy of Holies in the new Temple—and according to their tradition God is present in the Ark of the Covenant. But at the very moment in this big celebration when they manage to localize God, just when they imagine that they have tamed God so that they will know where to find God and where to come to seek the presence of God, God makes a U-turn. God fills the temple with a cloud and drives the priests right out of the temple.
In other words, God says: look, I don’t care how wonderful your building is, I don’t care how much time it took you to build it, I don’t care how magnificent it is, I am more wonderful still and I am not contained within any shrine you might build for me no matter how beautiful that shrine might be.
Lesson one: like Solomon’s temple, this place is a house dedicated to God, but God does not live here. God is here when we are here. And God travels from this place to wherever our journey might lead us. God is the one who walks the lonesome valley and takes us by the hand when the shadow of death comes calling.
God is here when we are here, because you and I bear the image of God and Jesus said that when ever two or three of us gather in one place (whether on zoom or through the live stream which some of you are watching), God is there with us and we are not alone.
This place is holy not because it is beautiful, it is holy because you and I are holy—the very children of God’s love and holy is as holy does—and being holy as God is holy is about loving others and making sure all God’s children have enough to eat and a warm, safe place to live.
I think that most people would agree that this space is pleasing to the eye—the first time I visited here many years ago, I found this place beautiful in its simplicity—but its true beauty is the beauty of a community of people seeking to follow the way of Jesus who just happen to meet here. For example, God showed up here a week ago Saturday to meet some of you in the form of kitchen towels and kitchen gadgets and volunteers and students from around the world and that’s a fact—that was a genuine God sighting!
I sometimes come into this space during the week alone and I love to do that—but I must remind myself that the thing which makes this a sanctuary—a holy place—is the gathered presence of the people of God whether they are physically here or present on the other side of that camera.
It is beautiful because here we find the strength to go out into this community and into the wider world and find ways to let the Christ light shine. It is beautiful because we discover ways while we’re connected here to be neighbor to one another and to hold one another’s hands when the going gets rough. It is beautiful because in our gathering in person (or virtually), we are reminded that the true holy places are wherever we lift up our eyes to see the goodness and the beauty all around us in this world and beyond this world in the mystery of a universe still unfolding. Beauty is as beauty does, goodness is as goodness does.
Lesson two, when God filled the temple with a cloud, it was a warning about idols—don’t worship idols—you know that, don’t localize God and whatever you do, don’t make some image of God and bow down before it. This is just basic Christianity 101, Judaism 101, and Islam 101. Moses said it, Jesus said it, Mohamed said it!
Don’t ever get caught creating God in your own image or hemming God in with ideas that are too small or too local or that look too much like the backside of your own fears about the future. Don’t be seduced by conspiracy theories that are idols dressed up in ego-driven pseudoscientific costume. In my mind, that’s just the latest manifestation of the same old sin and there’s lots of it going around.
I have noticed that some people seem to believe that God is a conservative Republican. Others imagine that God is a liberal Democrat. I have noticed as well that some folks confuse their politics or their way of life or their contrary attitude with the will of God and call it freedom and that others are convinced that “God Bless America,” means that the rest of the rest of the nation and world with other ideas can just take a long walk off a short pier. That’s idolatry.
This text is a cautionary tale about religion or attitudes that create God in your image or mine because that is much more comfortable and comforting than the awesome deity who will not be built into a box or contained in my feeble brain or yours.
This temple text teaches that opinions and behavior that are too small, too narrow, too certain, are the dirty dishwater approximation of the Holy that filled the Temple and taught through the voice of Jesus. This story is a reminder that when we are certain about where God is located, when we’re ready to confine God to one type of building or hang the deity as a graven image above one altar dedicated to a particular way of life or thought system, God moves. God moves inviting us to expand our understanding of the mystery of God’s love. Simply stated wherever love abides, God resides, and love knows no borders and God’s love is bigger than anybody’s politics or palaver.
Lesson three, when it comes to God—when it comes to knowing God and following the way of Jesus, it is never about a place, it is about a relationship—our relationship with God, God’s relationship with us and our relationship with our neighbors and a place that makes relationships happen is a holy place. That is why we do what we do as a congregation.
Do you remember what Jesus said when he was asked what we needed to do to become the inheritors of eternal life? He said that we are to love God with our whole heart, with our entire soul and with the totality of our mind and find a way to love one another with the same depth with which we have been loved. Solomon calls it steadfast love: the love that will never let us go; the love that will never abandon either us or this beautiful world. The apostle Paul calls it grace: the unconditional acceptance of each of us no matter how unacceptable we might believe ourselves to be.
And so, here we are in this place, this place of beauty. And it is good, it is very good, but like that temple long ago—this beautiful place is not a destination. This place is a way station on the path that leads to life. Here we find renewal; here we are reminded of God’s love and mercy, here we can be recharged for the life journey, here we can meet a neighbor we need to love. Here we can work together, to accomplish great things, but here is not the destination. The journey is whatever comes next. Amen.
From July 12 to October 3, 2021, the Rev. Ron Patterson is with us again, having served as a sabbatical interim four years ago, and then serving as our interim conference minister during The Rev. Sue Artt’s sabbatical. Ron retired as Senior Minister of Naples United Church of Christ in Florida. Ron and his wife have family here in Fort Collins: their daughter is a member of Plymouth, and their grandchildren are active in Sunday school. Pronouns: he/him.
Rev. Dr. Ron Patterson
Plymouth Congregational, UCC
Fort Collins, CO
I Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
This morning I want to talk about dreams. I am not an interpreter of dreams, and I am not a psychologist or a mystic, but I am a dreamer and I believe with my whole heart that when I trust my dreams and listen to them, I am healthier and that when I ignore them and don’t pay attention to my dreams I am in a bad place. I believe that dreams are important for our emotional health and for our spiritual vitality and for our physical health as well.
Several years ago, I began to fall asleep in meetings. Now I know that church meetings can be sleep inducing and that there is no end to jokes about people falling asleep in church, but I was really sleepy until one afternoon I actually fell asleep at a traffic light. I finally went to my doctor and I expected him to poke around and do some tests, and instead he asked me a simple question: “How are you sleeping?” and when I said to him, I get eight hours of sleep every night, he asked me: “Are you dreaming?” and it suddenly occurred to me that I had stopped dreaming, that instead of waking up and remembering for a short time sometimes complex and convoluted dreams, I hadn’t dreamt for months. He sent me for a sleep study that revealed severe sleep apnea and when that problem was solved, the dreams came back and I recovered my energy and my vitality and the sleepy’s went away.
The Bible is full of dreams and dreamers. The lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs are driven by dreams. Dreams get Joseph of the coat of many colors in trouble, and dreams ultimately save him. The Wise Ones dream sends them home from Bethlehem by another route. Joseph the father of Jesus saves the savior by listening to his dreams. Herod, the wicked king is a man without dreams and he dies a terrible death because power without a dream or a vision is deadly. Haven’t we learned that the hard way in this country?
Pharaoh, Job, Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar, Jacob, and many more are warned, guided and sustained by dreams. And then there’s those words spoken by Peter on the Day of Pentecost quoting the prophet Joel about the promise of the “kingdom” of God, about the time when justice and truth and peace will prevail on this good earth, the time when the old will dream dreams and the young ones will see visions.
So today I want to talk about dreams and dreaming and my text is from the book of I Kings, the story of God coming to a very young King Solomon in a dream.
Now in this this dream, God asks King Solomon what he wants. Well, what do kings or for that matter, most politicians normally want? They want long life or at least perpetual re-election and lots of power and lots of money.
But this young King is not ordinary. He doesn’t ask for wealth or power or money—he asks instead for an understanding mind, he asks instead to know the difference between right and wrong, he asks instead for the presence of God to guild him in his life. And he gets his wish. Solomon receives from God an understanding mind. He receives from God the knowledge of good and evil. He receives from God a full measure of wisdom. And as a bonus, because from God’s point of view he asked for the right things, all the rest: long life, wealth and power were given as well. Now this is a great story and one I hope you will remember the next time you mark a ballot or listen to the yammering of a politician or a talking head.
Now, let me talk just a bit about power of dreams. To begin with not everyone believes that dreams have any meaning. I do.
As I said, I’m not a psychologist and I am certainly no psychiatrist. But those I’ve read disagree about dreams. Some of them say dreams are important and some of them say they aren’t. Some of them say that dreams are just random encounters with bits and fragments of the unconscious mind, totally without meaning. Others believe that dreams are much more meaningful. One of them, whose work I really admire has said that we do not sleep to rest, rather, we sleep to dream—that dreaming is the purpose of sleep and that emotional and spiritual health are not possible without a dream life. (C. G. Jung)
That’s pretty close to my own belief about dreams—except that I would add one more layer to the idea that we sleep to dream. I not only believe that we sleep to dream, but that dreams are the gift of a loving God for the purpose of healing and wholeness and wellness. And that sometimes, in fact many times, God speaks to us in our dreams. And that listening to our dreams is one way you and I can listen to the voice of God.
Did you ever have a dream that repeats over and over again? Let me tell you about a dream I have many Saturday nights. I dream that you are all here and that I arrive late at the church building just as you are singing the first hymn, sometimes I’ve had a flat tire or sometimes I get lost but when I finally get here, the doors are locked and I go all around the building trying to find a way to get into the church. But I can’t find the door or because you are singing, you can’t hear me knocking on the locked door once I do find it. Or sometimes I get locked in the bathroom and can’t get out as the service starts or sometimes I dream that I get up in the pulpit only to discover that I have forgotten to bring my sermon with me and I’m suddenly standing up here with nothing to say. I’ve even dreamed that I show up at the wrong time or in the wrong place. Now that is a preacher’s nightmare and dreams of that type are what are referred to as classic anxiety dreams.
Do you remember a dream like that? Do you remember that dream from when you were in college and it was the last week in the semester and you suddenly discovered that you had forgotten to go to a particular class and that you were confronted with a final exam for which you had not prepared? Do you recall how relieved of stress you were when you woke up and found out that it wasn’t true? Or how about a dream when you are embarrassed in public—that you arrive someplace with no clothes on or the wrong clothes? Anxiety dreams like these are healing dreams.
They heal us because they gather up whatever it is that worries us or troubles our hearts or makes us afraid and the dream maker—our own spirit under the inspiration of God’s love, I believe, lays out the very worst possibilities in life, reviews those possibilities, and causes us to live through them in our dreams. And while sometimes they are full of the most graphic detail and sometimes, they are terribly painful, we wake up relieved of the burden.
I believe that when we lay down to sleep the one who keeps your soul and mine sends us dreams to deal with those things in our lives which trouble us and worry us most. The way I picture it, our anxiety dreams are like someone working the night shift on our behalf, first with a push broom and shovel, cleaning up the clutter of our harder days and dealing with the day’s worries, while helping us reduce our anxiety and our fears.
And then when the mess is cleaned up that same still small voice of God the giver of dreams, can become a wise teacher and guild helping our unconscious mind to heal and to think new thoughts and consider new possibilities. Did you ever have a dream which helped you make a decision? Did you ever have a dream which gave you a new idea or a way forward in your life journey?
Part of my nighttime routine is a ritual I call “giving it to God”. When I lay down at night, I gather up my worries and the things that might be keeping me awake, or the things I am working on and all my prayer concerns and mentally put them in a little bundle and lay them up on the head board. Then I say to God—would you work on these things tonight so I can get some rest? And the blessing for me is that so many times, some of those concerns or some of the things I am working on get taken up in my dreams and new ideas and ways of looking at my present reality emerge. And that is a gift from God the giver of dreams.
Am I allowed to talk about Christmas at an outdoor service in the middle of August? My favorite Christmas story—aside from the Christmas story with Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus is the one written by Charles Dickens. Dreams moved the action of the first Christmas story, but do you remember the role that dreams played in the Dickens classic?
In each of Ebenezer Scrooge’s dreams his uneasy conscience took his personal pain, his smallness of mind, his greed and his secret regret over his shriveled heart, and held those broken places up to the searching light of God’s love in ways that would have been a daytime impossibility. Dreams converted Scrooge. Dreams converted him from death to life, from darkness to light, from despair to hope, from misery to love. He was saved in the night kitchen of his dreams.
Now, I’ve only touched the surface of this whole subject of dreams, but one last thing: There is no record that Jesus ever dreamed. The gospel writers and Paul are completely silent about his dream life. But let me suggest that dreams heal our past and open the way to the future. Dreams take our pain and open the path of possibility. Dreams clean up what is old about yesterday and enable us to face tomorrow.
That’s exactly who Jesus was. That defines exactly what Jesus does. He looks at this world as it is and invites you and me to embrace what might be. He looks at hate and invites us to love. He stares fear in the face and invites you and me to hope and confidence. He confronts our fear of death with the power and the promise of abundant life. He was and is quite simply a dreamer inviting all of us to embrace his dream.
In our waking, in our dreaming, Lord may that become the truth about our lives! Amen.
This service was held outdoors at Rolland Moore Park, so there is no recording.
1 Kings 19. 1-13
9th Sunday after Pentecost
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
1Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, how he had killed all Baal's prophets with the sword. 2Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah with this message: "May the gods do whatever they want to me if by this time tomorrow I haven't made your life like the life of one of them."
3Elijah was terrified. He got up and ran for his life. He arrived at Beer-sheba in Judah and left his assistant there. 4He himself went farther on into the desert a day's journey. He finally sat down under a solitary broom bush. He longed for his own death: "It's more than enough, LORD! Take my life because I'm no better than my ancestors."5He lay down and slept under the solitary broom bush. Then suddenly a messenger/some say an angel tapped him and said to him, "Get up! Eat something!"6Elijah opened his eyes and saw flatbread baked on glowing coals and a jar of water right by his head. He ate and drank, and then went back to sleep. 7The Holy One's messenger returned a second time and tapped him. "Get up!" the messenger said. "Eat something, because you have a difficult road ahead of you."8Elijah got up, ate and drank, and went refreshed by that food for forty days and nights until he arrived at Horeb, God's mountain.
9There he went into a cave and spent the night. The Holy One's word came to him and said, "Why are you here, Elijah?" 10Elijah replied, "I've been very passionate for the Yahweh, the God of heavenly forces because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant. They have torn down your altars, and they have murdered your prophets with the sword. I'm the only one left, and now they want to take my life too!" 11The the Spirit of the Holy One said, "Go out and stand at the mountain before the Yahweh. The Holy One is passing by." A very strong wind tore through the mountains and broke apart the stones before the Holy One. But the Holy One wasn't in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake. But the Holy One wasn't in the earthquake. 12After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the Holy One wasn't in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet. 13When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat. He went out and stood at the cave's entrance. A voice came to him and said, "Why are you here, Elijah?"
Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 12824-12828).
Why are you here? Today. Right now. Why are you here in this church? In worship? Why are you here? (Pause) Any Ideas? Thoughts? Feelings? Hold all that question….We’ll come back to it. A bit about this story…..
You may remember that in the movie, “The Wizard of Oz,” that Glinda the Good Witch asks the little girl, Dorothy Gale, just after she has miraculously arrived in Oz in a whirlwind from Kansas, “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” And this question begins Dorothy’s adventures in Oz. It becomes a test of who Dorothy can trust as she journeys through this strange new land, test of leadership. Midway through the required yearlong study of the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament at Yale Divinity School, my fellow study group friends and I developed a similar question, “Was he a good king or a bad king?” You see, it was important to know this about the ancient kings of Israel that came after Saul and David and Solomon. It was not just a history questions but also a theological question. Yahweh originally did not want to the people to have a king like their neighboring tribes had because ultimately the leadership of the Hebrew people came from Yahweh. Finally, Yahweh grudgingly allows the prophet Samuel to appoint a king because the people are threatening revolt with the caveat that the test of a “good king” was whether that king took his cues from Yahweh and followed in the ways of the Holy One. So to remember the ups and downs, the adventures of the ancient kings in leading Israel and following Yahweh you had to ask, “Were they good or bad? Following in God’s ways or not? Where were they faithful or where did they do astray?”
Ahab was not a good king. Why? Because he let himself be led astray from following the One God, Yahweh, by his wife, Jezebel, who worshiped the fertility god, Baal. .Jezebel tried to turn all of Israel away from Yahweh to Baal. So the Yahweh called the prophet, Elijah, to prophesy to the king and his wife and all the Israelites. We meet Elijah in our text today at a point when Yahweh has vindicated Elijah in his fight against the prophets of Baal. In fact all the Baal’s prophets have been killed. Jezebel is so angry that she threatens Elijah’s life. So, he runs for it, runs for his life! Straight into the presence of Yahweh on the mountain. Even as he longs to die because his exhaustion after fighting the good fight, God won’t let him give up. He is sustained with food in the wilderness brought by God’s messenger. And this food gives him the strength to continue and to ultimately face meet the Holy One face to face at Horeb, the mountain of God where God met Moses in the burning bush.
God asks, Elijah, on the mountain in that cave. “Why are you here, Elijah?” Can you hear the frustration, the anger, in the prophet’s answer? “You know “darn” well why I am here! I’ve been doing your “darn” work, following you and now that crazy queen is trying to kill me! What do you mean, “Why am I here? I’m here because people aren’t listening. They want to take the easy way out and follow the flashy gods of false culture. I keep preaching. I keep showing up. And it's literally killing me. That’s why I’m here!”
What does our enigmatic God say to this rant? Nada. Nothing. God simply shows up….to be present to Elijah….but not in the drama of earthquake, wind or fire. In silence. In simple presence. In quiet. With a whisper. And then God says again, “Why are you here?”
I ask you, us, God’s question, ”Why are you here? Why are we here?” Here in a church, in this church, in this worship service. It can still be iffy to meet in crowds because of the pandemic. And church is not a flashy, cool place to be, not always a credible place to be in our culture. Why are we here? Why are you here?
And I’m sorry …. “Because my friends are here, because I have always gone to church, because I want my kids to learn moral and values” (as some parents said to me in Sunday School volunteer training years ago) are not fully sufficient answers. You can meet friends in many meaningful organizations and groups. If you aren’t teaching your children morals and values 24/7 then an hour or two at church even every week won’t likely do as much as you might think. Just because you’ve always come to church is nice, but it doesn’t really get to the point, does it? Why, really, why are you here?
Why are you here? Hearing any whispers?
This past week, Hal sent an article to Plymouth staff, and our board and committee leaders from the Faith-Lead group at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. It was titled, “Focus on Why.” It’s essentially about how to invite people into the life and ministry of our churches. In bulletin inserts and weekly emails, we tend to only give the “what” that we do assuming that people will intuit the “why.” But if we only say, we need more volunteers for this food pantry service project, or to staff the youth pancake supper, or to teach Sunday school, or even more people to come to worship, we really don’t reach the core of people’s busy lives. “Why” should they come to these events, volunteer for these ministries, join us in worship? The article’s author writes, “I want people to hear that the ministry we do is critical. I want them to hear that God is incredibly active in what we do. I don’t actually care about pancakes or giving up time on a Saturday morning. What I do care about is why people give up their Saturday morning to help at the pantry. I care about why kids need to experience a national youth gathering to grow in their faith which will be funded by a pancake supper. I care about why people need to take time in their life to worship to live a fuller life with God. How will we notice God at work through activities if we don’t even know why we are doing them?”
My friends, we cannot answer the “why” of all our events and ministries in order to invite more folks to join us, if we do not know “why” we ourselves are here to worship, to participate in learning, to work for social justice, to nurture our children and youth.
Why are you here?
Elijah was so caught up in the drama and exhaustion and risk of his work – and all of which was very real – that he could not hear the voice of God, feel the presence of the One who sustained him and be grateful for that sustenance until he was stopped still in his tracks. His first answer is full of drama. And fear. Then, after the earthquake, wind and fire, God asks him again, “Elijah, why are you here?” The question echoes through the silence of that cave. “Why are you here?” As the story continues from the endpoint of our text today, Elijah actually gives God the very same answer he gave the first time. Yet I hear it with a very different emotional tone.
"I've been very passionate for Yahweh, the God of heavenly forces because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant. They have torn down your altars, and they have murdered your prophets with the sword. I'm the only one left, and now they want to take my life too." [Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 12841-12843).]
Did you hear the difference as Elijah speaks into the silence. “I was following you, God. I was scared, God. I am tired and angry, God. I don’t know where else to be, God. I don’t have anyone, anything, else to count on. I want to be with you, God.” Could any of those be the reasons we are here this day in this church, in worship?
After Elijah answers this second time, God, gives the prophet specific instructions of who to go to for help with his mission. Go to the leader of this tribe and that one, make this person your successor prophet. And I have preserved this many people in Israel who are faithful to me and will work with you in opposition to Jezebel and her prophets of Baal. However, before these instructions, Elijah, has to stop and really listen to the question of the Holy One….”Why are you here?”
As we prepare for re-opening our church programming in more ways – we hope – in the fall, as we follow the guidance and vision of our very prayerfully and intentionally developed strategic plan, as we welcome and get to know new staff who will minister with and among us, let us keep God’s question before us, “Why are you here?” Like the ancient kings of Israel and their prophets, will we be “good” leaders in the kingdom, the realm of God… following in and listening to God’s ways no matter how risky or counter-cultural? Or will we be “not so good”, “bad” even, going with the flow of culture, doing things like we’ve always done before, afraid to risk, not questioning if we are straying from the presence and the sustenance of God? Like Elijah, each of us must answer the question, “Why are you here?” Why do you keep coming back to God’s community? Why do you keep seeking the company of the Holy One? Why are you here? Amen.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2021 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.