may 30, 2010

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage
May 30, 2010
Psalm 8
1 Kings 17:8-16

This morning’s lectionary text from 1 Kings is a prophetic one. It is one of my favorites. It is perplexing. It is full of miracles. It speaks of God’s power. It points to our power, as children of God. It is a story set in the wilderness. This is code, in Biblical stories, for a story set in struggle, and unexpected gift. Struggle, and unexpected gift.

It is the Sunday closest to Memorial Day.

It is Peace with Justice Sunday.

It is our final Sunday together before Summer starts in earnest, before Annual Conference, before my ordination.

It is fitting, I believe, to share the story from 1 Kings today. Struggle, and unexpected gift. Conflict, and finding ways to connect in the midst of it all. Remembering what has been, while looking toward what might be. Honoring the past, without allowing ourselves to be bound by its struggles.

Did you know that when Memorial Day was established, first called Decoration Day, many people in this country refused to recognize and honor it as a holiday? This holiday was established at the end of the Civil War, a day set aside to honor those who died. It was initiated by Union soldiers, former slaves, newly freed blacks, who exhumed the bodies of other former slaves from mass graves, built a fence around the graveyard, and insisted on remembering and honoring each one who had given their lives. May 30 was chosen specifically because it was not the anniversary of a battle, and therefore could be marked by honoring those who sacrificed and lost their lives, without glorifying the violence and bloodshed that took their lives. The division in this country over slavery was still bitter, however, and many of the states in the US South refused to celebrate Decoration Day. It wasn’t until the 1960s that Memorial Day was moved to create a 3 day weekend, a move many lament as shifting the focus from remembering the struggle, and through it, the unexpected gifts we celebrate today, to mere vacation—grilling out, boating, camping, drinking…

The prophet Elijah didn’t speak about the Civil War, didn’t have any idea this country would ever exist, and certainly held no loyalty to the United States (or any country, for that matter, since God’s message was that loyalty to nation can keep us from undivided loyalty to God.) But Elijah did speak of a world driven by conflict and urgent need. Elijah did speak of a thirst for miracles, a hunger for a new kind of world, one guided by God’s justice, and peace, and the sacrifices we often are called to make to create this new realm.

On this Peace with Justice Sunday, I am trying something different. I am not asking you to write checks or give money to the Peace with Justice Special Offering. In fact, we are not taking up a special offering. I am doing this because I know you all are being asked to give generously for many important causes, both within the church and beyond. And, I know you are giving generously…More importantly, I am doing this because I fear that I, that we, too often feel that writing a check is sufficient, that it is our way of contributing. Writing checks is important, and I don’t want to discourage generous giving. But Peace with Justice will never be established by writing checks, just like the sacrifices and lives honored through Memorial Day will never be adequately remembered by grilling, boating, camping out, and drinking.

So today, I want us to think. To consider. To reflect. To listen deeply, and look carefully to how this scripture might be calling us to live.

I want to share three stories with you. Three stories from my life, that connect me to the prophet Elijah, to this text from 1 Kings, to the wilderness which holds struggle, and unexpected gift.

The first is a story about going where I never thought I would, not because it made sense, not because it seemed wise or clear, but because I felt God calling me, like God called Elijah. “Get up. Go. It will not be easy, but it is what you need to do.”

The second is about seeing God’s Peace with Justice being brought to the world. To Minneapolis, precisely, because ordinary people are taking the time to care, to connect, to create.

The third is about recognizing that practicing what we preach, that living our faith, and following Jesus and letting scripture guide our lives, that this almost always takes us out of our comfort zone, and sometimes, outside the zone of safety, and security.

Story number 1: The prophet Elijah heard God say, “Go to Zarephath, the land of Sidon, and live there.” I heard God say, “Go to Iowa, the town of Osage, and live there.” Some of you have heard the story of how I came to say “yes” to this appointment. It is a long story, with many acts. This is the abbreviated version: I was planning on staying in Northern California. I loved it there, I loved my community, my colleagues, my friends who had become family. I love the cultural diversity, the racial diversity, the religious diversity of that place. I was fulfilled by my work as a hospital chaplain. The Iowa Conference approved my staying there, and was willing to allow me to continue the ordination process without coming back to Iowa to serve a church. I didn’t want to serve a church. I had heard too many stories about the challenges of being a pastor serving a church. Conflict. Constant criticism. Little time off, long hours, isolation. If you preach for 15 minutes, some complain it wasn’t 10, while others are sure anything under 20 is slacking on the job. Never living up to the expectations of those you serve. Always letting someone down, even if it is as you are serving another. Etc. So. My District Superintendent said I needed to put this request, the one they had already granted, in writing. One sentence. “Please appoint me to extension ministry so I can remain in ministry in the California-Nevada conference, while maintaining my official relationship with the Iowa Conference.” Simple enough. Except that I couldn’t do it. I tried. And something was holding me back.

After a week of trying to write this short, simple letter, the deadline loomed, and the final day arrived when it needed to be postmarked in order to get to the cabinet in time for them to appoint me to extension ministry. This was late May, 2008. On this final day, I sat down at my desk, took out a clean sheet of paper, lit a candle, and started to write my request. A breeze stirred, strong enough to lift my paper off my desk, carry it out of my open window, and blow it into the alley behind my apartment building.

I don’t always listen to God as carefully as I should, but this was obvious enough even for me.

I called my DS, and mumbled something about rethinking it, about feeling called, about thinking this was a God-thing, about being terrified. He asked me what I wanted in a congregation I might serve. I told him urban. In a city or college town. Culturally and racially diverse. Justice-oriented. Reconciling, United Methodist talk for, committed to inclusivity and intentionally welcoming gay and lesbian folk. Acting as an associate, not a solo pastor, so that I wouldn’t have to be the administrator, and instead could focus my energy on worship, program ministry, small groups and spiritual formation. A church paying 100% of apportionments. The district superintendent laughed. He said, “And you’re wanting to come back to Iowa?” They had already made most of the appointments. Remember, this is late May. But, he said, there is one appointment I’d like you to consider.

Less than two weeks later I was back in Iowa for Annual Conference, and my commissioning as provisional clergy. Less than a week after that, I was meeting with the SPPRC in a town called Osage, a place I had never been before. Less than an hour after meeting with SPPRC, I said yes to being appointed here.

I am grateful that piece of paper was carried out of my window. I am grateful I stepped out in faith, terrified, and said yes to coming here. I am grateful for the work and ministry we are doing together, for the relationships and community we are building, for the service and witness we have the opportunity to share, for the faith, we are deepening and practicing together.

When God told Elijah to go to Zarephath, scripture doesn’t tell us whether or not Elijah hesitated. Whether he had a moment of wind picking up and blowing his carefully constructed plans out of the window. But he set out and went to Zarephath, and God met him there, and miracles started happening. So too, with us.

Story 2: And, for those of you still concerned with the time, the stories get shorter and shorter… Last Thursday I rented a bike in Minneapolis, and rode around the city…rode literally in a circle around Minneapolis on the Greenway, and throughout the city streets. You now know, if you didn’t before, that I love cities. But, I also know cities are places with crime. With a particular kind of poverty. With the tension and sometimes violence that comes when people of vastly different income levels, cultural backgrounds, religious beliefs, etc. come together. I rode around expecting to see signs of this. And I did…some…graffiti, folks without a home, making theirs on the street, bikes and cars and patio tables locked up, blocks that housed both expensive corporate buildings, and run down abandoned houses. Liqour stores, strip clubs, evidence of various kinds of addiction…

But. What I saw far more of, what caught and kept my attention, were community gardens. Garden after garden after garden, dotting the city with green and red and yellow, vibrant colors and new life, and signs of care and commitment to community and connection. As I rode, I met people of every race, hairstyle, clothing style. Not a single one failed to smile back, when I smiled at them. I watched as a young man, younger than I am, stopped and sat on a bench with his young daughter, and patiently listened as she told him, in Spanish, because that is what they spoke, about paper after paper after paper of drawings from school, and he smiled a smile of pure fatherly pride and held her with an embrace of pure fatherly love that can be recognized across any language barrier.

I saw sign after sign after sign of embodied efforts to invest in beauty. Community. Connection across difference. Peace with justice. Not by writing checks, or even doing grand, elaborate things. But by planting gardens. Making art. Smiling at strangers. Getting out of cars and onto bikes. Finding ways in daily life to chip away at the pandemic challenges of hunger. Violence. Division. Disconnection.

Each day we make decisions about whether we will ignore injustice, or confront it. Whether we will reach out to each other, or turn away. Whether we will expect goodness from strangers, or reasons to fear them.

God’s Peace with Justice comes when the widow is willing to share her last bit of food and water with a strange stranger, even though she had every good reason not to. Peace with Justice comes when we are willing to share what we have, to care for creation, to care for each other, and to live out the belief that what connects us is far stronger than what divides us.

Story 3: I had been working on my sermon while in Minneapolis. Thinking about how each interaction offers the choice to reach out and trust each other and trust God, or to fear each other, and distrust each other, therefore distrusting other children of God. I had been immersed in this text from 1 Kings, and was feeling pretty convicted that fear is not of God, that faith takes us out of our comfort zones. That sometimes the faithful thing is not the safe thing, and that sometimes following Christ comes with real risk.

Driving back toward home, I made it about 20 miles south of Minneapolis on I-35, and then saw two people by the side of the road. Two people about my age, maybe a little younger, a young woman and young man, looking for a ride. Now, I do not pick up hitchhikers. Each time there is a part of me that wants to, but when I am on my own, a woman traveling alone, I feel the risk is too great, and I drive by, trying to remember to offer a prayer for the traveler, for safety and care. As I approached these two people, however, I saw in them all of my friends who have travelled the country relying on the kindness of strangers. One had a peace sign affixed to his bag, the other had a rainbow flag on hers.

My life has taught me that people who love peace and confront the fear of homophobia are some of the most trustworthy people in the world. I heard my mom’s voice in my head, “NO! Your life is too valuable for this risk! Think about all the things that could happen! They could rob you! They could hurt you! They could kill you!” And, I heard the text from 1 Kings, saying back, “What value is your life if you don’t live your values? The widow was alone, utterly vulnerable, yet she welcomed Elijah. She gave what she had. She heard the care in Elijah’s voice when he told her not to be afraid. She opened her home to him, a traveling stranger, from a different place, a different culture, breaking all the rules about safety and security.”

I pulled over. I gave them a ride. They were lovely. We talked theology. One was raised Catholic, the other United Methodist. Both had left the church, as so many my age have, because of the hypocrisy they found there. People talking about the goodness and gift of creation, but then giving no thought to chemicals and pesticides and sustainability. People talking about God creating us in God’s own image, but then failing to remember that extends to immigrants, too, whatever documents they have or don’t have. People reading scripture about Jesus’ love, and being brothers and sisters in Christ, and judging not lest we be judged, and then justifying all sorts of judgment in the name of Christianity and values and religion.

A hundred miles or so later I left them by the side of the road with warm good byes. I know I got lucky. I know the ride could have gone very differently. I admit, if my sister were considering doing the same, I would likely try to talk her out of it. But. These hitchhikers led me to a deeper understanding of scripture. They led me to an encounter with God’s wide grace and deep power and unending love. They let me to remember how human we all are, how in need of care and connection and the kindness of strangers.

God told Elijah to Go. To live in a strange place with people who were not his own, and to trust in God’s grace, and the power of Christ’s connection. Elijah told the widow to not be afraid, to trust God when it made no sense to do so, and to share what she had.

May we hear the call of Elijah. May we heed the call of God. May it be so. Amen, and amen.

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