The God who will be God

Sermon on Exodus 3:1-15 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

I have to be honest. Before I had a child of my own, I never changed a diaper. It’s not that I actively avoided it; it’s just that if the opportunity ever presented itself, there were always people around who were far more eager to take advantage. Of course, that changed when a baby moved into my house full time. I’ll admit, I was intimidated by the process. To my mind, changing a diaper was a little like changing my own oil: I knew that it was a fairly straightforward process and that people do it every day, but I couldn’t imagine being one of those people. Naturally, I eventually overcame these misgivings and have changed many diapers more or less successfully. Nevertheless, though all it really required was a willingness to get a little dirty from time to time, those initial feelings of trepidation and anxiety were very, very real.

In our reading from Exodus this morning, we hear of a similar trepidation from Moses when he encounters God at Mount Horeb, though his was arguably more justified. The Exodus is the defining story of the Hebrew Bible. Its narrative of liberation and redemption shaped the way Israel understood itself and its relationship with God. The prophets recall the Exodus both to offer comfort to their people in exile and to challenge those who mistreat the downtrodden. The New Testament uses the imagery of the Exodus to describe our liberation from the bondage of sin. The Exodus, in other words, is a potent reminder that God offers freedom to those who are oppressed. There is, however, another reason that this story exists at the very heart of our faith, a reason that is beautifully illustrated by Moses’ encounter with God at Mount Horeb.

In many ways, Moses was an unlikely candidate to be the agent of God’s liberation. Though he was a Hebrew by birth, he grew up in the household of Pharaoh’s daughter. He lived a comfortable existence until one day, in a fit of righteous anger, he killed an Egyptian for beating a Hebrew slave. Moses fled into the land of Midian, leaving his cares behind and embracing a new life in a foreign land. He tried to forget everything he knew: the family he abandoned, the misery of his people in Egypt, and his own violent anger. He sequestered himself from society and tried to outrun his human frailty. It was in the midst of this self-imposed exile that Moses came upon the burning bush.

Moses_&_Bush_Icon_Sinai_c12th_centuryThis encounter is more than an a call story. Sure, it is the commencement of the greatest prophetic career in the Hebrew Bible. Moreover, it is the ultimate illustration of that oft-quoted truism that God does not call the qualified, but qualifies the called. God commissions Moses in spite of his inadequacies. Yet this story is less about Moses than it is about God. Moses, deeply aware of his failings, responds predictably to God’s commission: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Moses couldn’t imagine being the kind of person who could lead his people out of bondage. God’s call forces Moses to confront the human frailty he had so desperately tried to forget. Yet, God doesn’t dispute Moses’ human frailty. God doesn’t encourage Moses or tell him that liberating the oppressed isn’t all that hard. Instead, God responds with a powerful articulation of who God is: “I AM WHO I AM.” Another way to translate this is “I will be who I will be.” God is the one who will be God; God is is not hamstrung by expectations or beholden to the powers of the world. Moses has it exactly right when he questions his ability to bring the Israelites out of Egypt. It is not Moses, but God who will liberate God’s people. Moses acknowledges this on the far side of the Red Sea when he sings, “I will sing to the LORD, for the LORD has triumphed gloriously…The LORD is my strength and my might and has become my salvation.” The encounter between Moses and God at Mount Horeb is the ultimate expression of a truth at the very heart of our faith: we are to locate our trust, not in our own strength, not in our own power, but in the very being of God.

On this third Sunday in Lent, we are well into this season of penitence and renewal. We often think of Lent as a time of spiritual accomplishment. We heroically forego chocolate or doughnuts or strong drink for 40 days and 40 nights, proving our mettle and our worthiness of God’s favor. This perspective, however, misses the point of this holy season. On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded of our mortal nature and and our utter inability to save ourselves, and then we are invited to put our trust in the grace and love. The disciplines and deprivations of this season remind us that we are dependent not on ourselves, but on the salvation that comes from God alone. The journey of Lent is about standing with Moses on that holy ground and recognizing our inadequacy, acknowledging that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves, and then turning and locating our trust with the God who will be God, the God in whom we live and move and have our being, the God who is the source of our life and salvation. The message of Lent is simple: we are frail, but God is God. In this political season, it is easy to pin all of our hopes for the future on individual candidates, frail human beings all. Moses’ encounter with God at Mount Horeb, however, reveals that no candidate, no policy, no campaign promise can save us: only the God who will be God can bring us into the fullness of life and joy.

Shortly after my daughter was born was born, my wife had a brief illness that landed her in the hospital overnight. Because I wanted to remain with her and we both wanted to have as much time with our newborn as possible, the baby stayed in the hospital room with us. As it turns out, hospital rooms are not an ideal place for a 10 day old to rest. Indeed, she refused to sleep for the duration of the night. At one point, my daughter was inconsolable and my wife was in excruciating pain. As I rocked the baby and patted my wife’s shoulder, I wept, because I realized there was nothing I could do. My love for these two people far outstripped my capacity to bring them comfort. I was utterly inadequate to the task. Though both eventually fell asleep, this moment was a potent and painful reminder that I have no power in myself to save myself or those closest to me. All I could do in that moment was put my trust in God. 

There are moments in our lives that we are confronted with our incapacity to save ourselves. It is in these moments that we are called to put our trust in the one who keeps us, both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls; to surrender ourselves to the one who liberates us from anxiety by offering a peace which surpasses all understanding; to remember the God who will be God.


Over the past few days, I have been reflecting on finding grace at the gym, particularly Abilene’s YMCA in Redbud Park.

If you are a frequent reader of this blog, you know that I have been trying to get to the gym on a more regular basis.

images-2When I first returned to an exercise regimen, I solemnly vowed that I would not use elliptical machines.  They seemed simultaneously to require too little effort and too much coordination (more than I possess, anyway).  When I grew tired of swimming every day, however, I sheepishly broke my vow and gave the elliptical a try.  Astonishingly, I enjoyed the experience far more than I expected I would.  Sure, I looked a little like a baby deer the first time I tried to make my arms and legs work together, but I eventually got the hang of it.  More importantly, I discovered that when you do it right, the elliptical is a lot more challenging than it looks.  By the time I finished my first hour-long session, I was completely worn out and gasping for a drink of water.  When I stumbled to the water fountain, I noticed the word etched into the plastic handle: “Oasis.”  I can’t think of a better way to describe the experience of drinking water from that fountain after a long workout.  Like an oasis in the desert, it was a place of refreshment and sustenance, a verdant patch of green in an otherwise forbidding landscape, a place that signaled it was time to rest.

Where is your oasis?  Where is the place that you can stop, rest, and be refreshed?  One of the important aspects of life in the Church that I believe we have forgotten is the practice of Sabbath.  We have gotten seduced by the notion we always have to be doing something in order to be considered productive.  Our ancestors, however, recognized that we are occasionally the most productive when we are doing nothing at all.  The Torah lays out a fairly comprehensive approach to the concept of Sabbath.  Not only are there rules requiring people to rest every week, there are regulations that specify when to let land lie fallow, when to rest livestock, and when to cancel debts.  Sabbath, in other words, not about taking a breather every once in a while, it is about reevaluating our position in the world and reorienting ourselves to the God who created us.  It was a way of rejuvenating the land and reinvigorating human relationships, something that we desperately need in this age of overconsumption and mistrust.  So, as you consider where you might find your oasis, make sure it is a place where you can really stop.  Make sure it is a place where you can go regularly and be productively unproductive, where you can reevaluate where you are and reorient yourself to God.

Dark Horse

Sermon on Genesis 12:1-4a offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest.

imgresIn 1844, the people of the United States elected a president no one had ever heard of.  That’s not entirely true, of course.  James Polk was both Speaker of the House of Representatives and Governor of Tennessee, so his name was known in the political circles of the day.  The thing is, no one expected him to be nominated, much less elected to the presidency.  In 1844, most observers assumed that the presidential contest would be between Martin Van Buren, who had served as president from 1837 to 1841, and Henry Clay, who had already unsuccessfully run for the office in 1824 and 1832.  Nevertheless, due to a variety of factors, like a deadlocked convention and the endorsement Van Buren’s former ally Andrew Jackson, Polk received the Democratic nomination for president.  And even though most people assumed that 1844 was finally Clay’s year, James K. Polk won the election by a fairly convincing margin.

urlIn spite of the fact that Polk served only a single term in office and died shortly thereafter, his legacy is surprisingly significant.  Through his negotiations with Great Britain and his prosecution of the Mexican-American War, Polk is responsible for acquiring territory that now makes up a large portion of the United States, including Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and of course, Texas. Furthermore, the acquisition of all this territory impelled Congress to deal with the question of slavery, which may have hastened the onset of the Civil War.  But perhaps the most enduring popular legacy of James Polk’s presidency is the fact that he was the first so-called “dark horse” candidate for president in this country.  Because Polk was largely unknown to the political establishment, his candidacy took most people by surprise and frankly, no one had any real expectations of him.  Since Polk’s presidency, the notion that an unknown can be nominated and elected president has become an important part of the American political narrative, even though it has only happened a handful of times.  Pundits and party strategists spend inordinate amounts of energy trying to determine who the next “dark horse” candidates are going to be (which arguably means that they aren’t dark horse candidates anymore).  The reason for this is the same reason we pretend that so many of our presidents were born in log cabins: there is a romance about the dark horse candidate.  The very concept resonates with our deepest hopes about the American Dream: that literally anyone can be elected president; literally anyone can attain the goals they set for themselves.

In our reading from Genesis today, we are introduced to Abram, who in some ways is the ultimate dark horse candidate from Scripture.  Now you may be thinking, “Come on!  Abraham?  The “father of many nations”?  The patriarch of patriarchs?  He’s somehow a dark horse?  Get out of here!”  But please, hear me out.  Up to this point in Genesis, we have the story of God’s attempt to be in relationship with all of humanity at once.  To put it mildly, things have not gone terribly well.  Adam and Eve have disobeyed God’s commandment in the Garden of Eden, Cain has murdered Abel, and humanity has gotten together to build a huge tower so that they can be like God.  So in chapter twelve, God adopts a new strategy.  Instead of trying to be in relationship with all of humanity at once, God decides to be in relationship with a single person and his family.  This is the genesis, if you will, of Israel’s understanding of their identity as a chosen people; the people of Israel traced their lineage back to Abraham, who they believed was chosen by God to be the father of a great nation.  The fascinating thing is that Genesis does not give us a reason for why God chose Abram.  The very first mention of Abram takes place at the end of the previous chapter, and all we are told is about him is that his father’s name was Terah, his wife’s name was Sarai, and they settled in the land of Canaan.  We do not hear that he was righteous or blameless like Noah or that he was particularly well suited to the life of a nomad or that he had any particular qualifications for being chosen by God.  This is striking.  This chapter is a hinge point in Genesis; in fact, it is hinge point for the story of God and God’s people and it all centers around this guy we’ve never heard of, this guy we don’t know anything about, this guy who was chosen by God for reasons that are beyond our understanding.  We are by no means the first to notice that Genesis fails to give Abram a backstory.  In fact, during the early days of Rabbinic Judaism, a midrash (or non-biblical story) about Abram circulated among the rabbis.  The midrash suggests that Abram’s father Terah was an idol maker, and that one day Abram, in a fit of righteous anger, stormed into his father’s workshop and destroyed every statue, thus demonstrating his intense and complete devotion to God.  While this is a great story, it says more about the fact that we want to know why God chose Abram than it does about Abram’s personal history.

This leaves us in the uneasy position of acknowledging that Abram is something of a dark horse: we don’t know where he came from or what the rationale for choosing him might have been.  Human beings like to make predictions, we like to put things in categories, we like to anticipate things before they happen, we like to decide who the dark horse candidate is going to be before they arrive on the scene.  Yet, in this crucial moment in the story of God and God’s people, we see that God’s choices rarely align with our expectations.  And this leads us inexorably into the uncertain territory of trust.  In all likelihood, the fact that we don’t know anything about Abram’s backstory means that he was also taken by surprise when God chose him.  Imagine his shock when he heard the Lord say, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”  For all we know, this is the first time that Abram heard the voice of the Lord.  And God does not provide an itinerary, God does not say how long Abram will be traveling, God does not say if Abram will ever see his family again.  All God does is hold out the vague promise that through Abram “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  And Genesis tells us that for whatever reason, “Abram went, as the Lord had told him.”  It’s really quite astonishing. Abram’s “call story,” this pivotal moment in the history of God’s people takes up only three and half verses.  We are not told that Abram asks questions, nor are we told that God explains his choice; we are only told that Abram is told to go and goes.  It’s no wonder that in his letter to the Romans, St. Paul summarizes the patriarch’s story with a single verse: “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”  As you’ve probably heard before, the Greek word that we typically translate as “believe” can just as easily be rendered “trust.”  In other words, Paul’s summary of Abraham’s story is that he trusted God, and because of his trust, God considered Abraham righteous.

He may have trusted God, but he wasn't happy about it...
He may have trusted God, but he wasn’t happy about it…

This raises a question about what Abram trusted, about what Abram was called to trust.  On one hand, it is clear that God was calling Abram to trust that he would inherit the land promised to him, that his journey would someday come to an end, that God was leading Abram toward a destination.  On the other hand, there is the promise that concludes God’s call to Abram: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  This promise comes before any of the other promises the Lord makes to Abram: before God promises that Abram’s descendants will be like the sand on the seashore, before Abram is promised the land of the Perizzites, Canaanites, and Jebusites, even before God promises that Abram’s wife Sarai will bear a son.  Before any of these other promises, God calls Abram to trust that he will be a blessing to the nations.  In some ways, this is the most extraordinary promise of all.  Abram was a nomad, a herdsman, a man without pedigree or evident talent, a dark horse, and God tells him to trust that he will be a means of blessing for the whole world.  In response to this outlandish promise, Abram trusts God and establishes the vocation for God’s people.  In the end, Scripture tells us that God did not choose Israel for their benefit, but for the benefit of all the people of the world, for the benefit of God’s whole creation.  As Christians, we trust that through Jesus Christ, we have been incorporated into that heritage, that we have become part of God’s chosen people, and that we too are called to be a blessing to the entire world.  Abram’s act of trust is ultimately the means by which all people will come into relationship with the God who created and redeemed them.

Pope-Francis-waving-crowdThis week marks the anniversary of the selection of another dark horse.  On March 13 of last year, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected to be the Bishop of Rome.  Calling himself Francis after the poor friar of Assisi and the founder of the Jesuit order, the Pope quickly began to make waves as he dispensed with the traditional trappings of the papacy and began to reform the bureaucracy of the Roman Catholic Church.  Perhaps most strikingly, the Pope insisted that the Church was called to be in solidarity with the poor and downtrodden.  Prior to the selection of Pope Francis, there were many observers who claimed that the Roman Catholic Church, and indeed the Church generally, had outlived its usefulness, that it was no longer relevant, that it was plagued by so many issues that it could not possibly survive.  And yet, even in the face of all of these criticisms, even though he hasn’t dealt with all the issues plaguing the church, this first year of Francis’ papacy has been shaped by his understanding that the Church can and must be a blessing to the world.  Francis’ attitude in this first year of his papacy has been the embodiment of the Anglican Archbishop William Temple’s observation: “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.”  The season of Lent is an opportunity for us to embrace this reality, to embrace our call to be a blessing to the world.  We are called to realize that God calls every one of us, no matter who we are, to help the people of this world understand how much God loves them.  By doing so, we, like Abram, will be dark horses, blessing the world with God’s promise of love for all people.

Daylight Saving

I don’t really care for Daylight Saving Time.

It’s not for the reason that you think.  While I certainly would prefer not to lose an hour of sleep on a Sunday morning (Sunday is kind of a big day in my line of work), I am willing to forgo an hour of sleep for the sake of those extra hours of daylight during the summer.  It is also not related to the fact that people always seem to see the time change as an opportunity to complain (as in this blog post), because I’ve gotten pretty used to the notion that people don’t really need an excuse to complain in our society.

imagesNo, the reason that I do not care for Daylight Saving Time is that it forces me into the uncertain and uneasy territory of trust.  You see, I have an atomic alarm clock, one that doesn’t have to be set, but automatically gets the time from some unknown location (probably satellites; it’s usually satellites).  This is very handy when the power goes out; I never have to go through the awkward process of trying (and invariably failing) to synchronize the times on two devices. This automatic feature, however, is downright terrifying on the night when I have to “spring forward.”  As I crawl into bed, I stare at the blue numbers, powerless to do anything to ensure I will wake up in time for church.  Generally, I wake up several times during the night in a cold sweat, worried that I have already slept through the first service.  Invariably, of course, the alarm goes off without a hitch and I wake up at precisely the right time.  In spite of my lack of trust, my alarm clock does exactly what it is supposed to do.

In many ways, my struggle with my alarm clock is a good metaphor for the Christian life.  Scripture is full of stories about trusting in the midst of uncertainty.  Abraham trusts God even though he doesn’t know where he is being called to go, Paul trusts God even though it means changing his entire vocation, and John the Evangelist tells us that we are called to trust in what God has done through Jesus Christ in order to have eternal life.  Lent is an opportunity for us to practice this trust.  We are invited to trust that God is with us even as we engage in sacrificial practices of fasting and almsgiving.  I pray that you will use the season of Lent to try trusting God even in the midst of uncertainty.


The last place one expects to find grace is in long lists of our failings.

On Ash Wednesday in the Episcopal Church, after ashes are imposed and we are reminded of our mortality, the entire congregation kneels to recite the Litany of Penitence.  While Episcopalians are used to corporate confession (in most churches, prayers of confession are recited nearly every Sunday), the one we recite on Ash Wednesday is particularly intense.  Not only do we confess our sin to God; we also confess to one another “and to the whole communion of saints in heaven and on earth.”  The prayer then proceeds with a comprehensive acknowledgment of our collective propensity to do wrong.  We confess our unfaithfulness, hypocrisy, self-indulgence, anger, envy, love of worldly goods, and negligence in prayer and worship.  It is, in many ways, a classic vice list that doesn’t really leave any penitential stone unturned.

At approximately the midpoint of this damning list, however, we are called to confess “our failure to commend the faith that is in us.”  Here, in the midst of all this talk about our wretchedness and the depravity of human nature, we are reminded that there is a part of us that is faithful, that there is a part of us that wants to return to God and put our trust in God’s grace.  Too often, we convince ourselves that we couldn’t possibly be faithful enough to be part of a body of believers.  Too often, we convince ourselves that our moments of doubt prevent us from being accepted by a Christian community.  Too often, we convince ourselves that there is no way God could love us in light of our faithlessness.  This attitude, however, misses not only the boundless and gracious love of God, but also the faith that lingers within us, the faith that may have languished over the last months and years but is ready to be cultivated, the faith that is a gift from God we are called to nurture.

I pray that the season of Lent may be a time when you will recognize the faith that is in you and use that faith to trust in the God who loves you.


Like many of you, my wife and I spent last Thursday evening watching Game 7 of the NBA Finals.  And like many of you, we were disappointed when the San Antonio Spurs lost after a valiant effort against the Miami Heat.  Our disappointment, however, was nothing compared to the despair of those who had grown up rooting for the Spurs.  In the aftermath of the loss, Spurs fans wept on sports radio and sank into deep depressions.  Interestingly, many fans wondered if they had done all they could to ensure a Spurs victory.  Keep in mind that these are not members of the Spurs organization; they are simply fans who engage in elaborate rituals they are convinced influence the outcome of basketball games.  I heard one such fan explain that he watched Game 7 wearing a Tim Duncan jersey, a David Robinson jersey, and three championship hats all at the same time, just to make sure he was doing all he could to contribute to the team.

Emergency RoomNow it’s easy to make fun of people like this, but I think all of us have a tendency to be superstitious about one thing or another.  When I served as a hospital chaplain, I noticed a common superstition among nurses in the Emergency Room.  Though usually a place of chaotic activity, there were occasional evenings when the ER at Saint Francis Hospital was quiet, as if people had forgotten to suffer catastrophic injuries that day.  I quickly learned, however, that no one was permitted to point out the relative lack of busyness, because as soon as someone said, “Boy, it sure is quiet tonight,” it seemed that ambulances and helicopters would start arriving and people with missing limbs would arrive at triage.  So on quiet nights, nurses, doctors, chaplains would wander around the ER holding their breath and refusing to say what was on everyone’s mind.  I don’t know about other people, but this quiet would lead me to worry about what could come through the doors of the ER, and what I imagined was generally much more dramatic than reality.  In other words, the enforced silence spoke even more loudly than the normal chaos of the Emergency Room.  I think that many of us feel this way about silence: it makes us uncomfortable, and forces us into a place where we are waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Often silence can overshadow even the most chaotic moments in our lives.

Today, we hear a famous passage from Scripture that shows us how loud silence can be.  Over the past several weeks, we have heard the story of Elijah and his pitched prophetic battle with Ahab, Jezebel, and the prophets of the false god Baal.  We heard how he embarrassed his opponents by demonstrating God’s power and how he executed God’s judgment upon prophets of Baal.  We heard how he persuaded a poor widow to assist him and how he brought her son back from the dead.  All of the stories we’ve heard have depicted a self-assured man full of prophetic power and charisma, a man who laughs in face of danger and is confident that he is going to succeed.  But today, we hear about a very different Elijah.  In the passage we read from Kings, we hear that Elijah is running away, escaping from Jezebel, running for his life, uncertain about whether he is going to live or die.  In fact, at one point, he collapses under a tree and asks God to take away his life because the pressure of his prophetic role is just too much for him.  After this, he takes a 40-day journey and eventually arrives at Mount Horeb, the mountain of God, where he hides in a cave.

It is at this point that God comes to Elijah and says, “What are you doing here?”  God’s question has a very accusatory tone: “Listen, you have been given extraordinary prophetic powers and the authority to preach the word of God! Why exactly are you hiding in a cave?”  Elijah’s response is to feel sorry for himself and his lot in life: “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.  I alone am left, and they are seeking my life to take it away.”  Elijah, in other words, says, “Even though I tried as hard as I could, the people whom you gave to me have utterly failed to keep your covenant; they’ve all gone over to the worship of Baal.  I have nothing left to live for.”  God’s response is interesting: he does not comfort Elijah in his self-pity or reject him and tell him that he’ll find someone else to be a prophet in his place.  Rather, God instructs Elijah to stand on the mountain before LORD as the LORD passes by.  The text then tells us that there was a great wind, followed by an earthquake, followed by a fire, but that God was not in any of these spectacular phenomena.  In the meantime, Elijah continues to hide in the cave.  It is only when it is quiet, when the earthquakes and fires have subsided, when there is a sound of sheer silence that Elijah finally steps out of the cave onto the mountain and hears the voice of God.

The traditional way to read this passage is to point out that God is not always present in those phenomena known to insurance companies as “acts of God,” but can also be found in silence.  This is clearly the interpretation embraced by the writer of the hymn: “Breathe through the heats of our desire thy coolness and thy balm.  Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire; speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire O still small voice of calm.”  There’s nothing wrong with this interpretation; we all need to be reminded how important it is to be quiet in God’s presence.  At the same time, I think that this traditional interpretation misses the point of this story.  For instance, Elijah does not emerge from the cave until the earthquake, wind, and fire have passed, even though God had instructed him to stand on the mountain earlier.  I wonder if Elijah is not necessarily “looking for God in the silence,” but is emerging from the cave only when he thinks the coast is clear.  Moreover, it is telling that God and Elijah repeat their exchange from a few verses before as Elijah stands on the mountain.  Elijah responds to God with the same self-pitying complaint about being rejected by Israel.  If Elijah had been looking for God in the silence, then his response to God would probably have evolved from self-pity to self-confidence.  Elijah’s exchange with God reveals a man who feels abandoned and lost, a man who is living a life without purpose and is afraid of what will happen to him next.

In may ways, Elijah’s experience is captured well by the words of Psalms 42 and 43.  Most scholars agree that these psalms were originally paired together, which is the why we read both of them this morning.  One of the reasons that they were thought to be paired is this common verse that appears three times: “Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?  And why are you so disquieted within me?”  This is a poignant summary of what Elijah was feeling on Mount Horeb; he was lonely, disquieted, and felt a crushing weight bearing down upon him.  He had every reason to be hopeless.  Each time this verse appears in these psalms, however, there is a response.  Even in the midst of despair, the psalmist interrupts himself by saying, “Put your trust in God, for I will yet give thanks to him, who is the help of my countenance, and my God.”  Put your trust in God.  Put your trust in God.  Put your trust in God.  These are the words the psalmist utters every time his doubts creep in, and these are the words that Elijah needs to hear.  He had become so preoccupied with his inability, with his frailty, with his failures, that he forgot to put his trust in God, the God who created him and called him to be a prophet.  God reminds Elijah of this in their encounter on Mount Horeb.  Though our lectionary ends the passage with God instructing Elijah to go through the wilderness of Damascus, the passage actually continues with God instructing Elijah to anoint new and faithful kings over his people.  God tells Elijah to anoint Elisha to be a prophet and partner.  And finally, God tells Elijah that there is still a remnant of Israel that has not worshipped Baal and remains faithful.  In other words, God speaks out of the silence and tells Elijah that he is not alone, that God is with him, that he has received prophetic power, and only has to put his trust in God.

cave_07There are times when all of us can relate to Elijah.  There are times when we all feel lonely, frail, and incapable of doing what God has called us to do.  There are moments when all of us ask that plaintive question: “Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?  And why are you so disquieted within me?”  There are moments when we forget how much God loves us, moments when we fail to honor the image of God in ourselves, moments when we turn away from God and hide in caves we have constructed for ourselves.  Sometimes these moments are fleeting, and sometimes they can last for years.  Sometimes the caves that we construct can be easily dismantled, and sometimes they are huge, hulking edifices that no one can penetrate.  We escape to these caves of addiction or infidelity or depression or anger or jealousy or resentment when the world and its expectations overwhelm us.  Yet, when Elijah hid in a cave to get away from his prophetic responsibility, God did not abandon him or give up on him; God reached out to him from the silence over and over and over again until Elijah understood how much God loved him and his people.  In the same way, God will reach out to us over and over and over again even when we hide in caves of our own making, even when we cannot hear God’s voice through the earthquakes of our lives.  God does not give up on us because that is not in God’s vocabulary.  When we come to the powerful realization of how much God loves us, then we, like Elijah, will be empowered to go forth and reach out to a world desperately in need of God’s redeeming love.  This isn’t always easy, but Elijah teaches us that God’s love empowers us to leave our caves, step into the silence, and put our trust in God.


During the invitation to a holy Lent on Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that Lent was historically “a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church.”  Lent was meant to be a time when those who had injured the community through their actions could be restored to the church and forgiven of their past wrongdoing.  We see this kind of community discipline described in Scripture.  In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul describes a situation in which an unrepentant sinner needs to be removed from the community for a time.  In Matthew 18, Jesus lays out a very specific formula for community discipline that could result in a person’s temporary exclusion from the church.  The important thing to realize is that in both of these examples, the sinner was not permanently excluded from the Christian community, but would eventually be reintegrated into the life of the church.  The body would eventually look beyond a person’s notorious and damaging past actions and embrace that person as he entered a new life of grace.

While there are some churches that still have such forms of community discipline in place, they are rarely used.  When these forms of discipline are used, it seems like the sinner’s exclusion from the community is not a temporary measure, but will probably last for a lifetime.  This is symptomatic of a wider trend in our culture.  Whenever politicians are caught in indiscretions or celebrities are exposed doing something wrong, they will invariably offer a public and tearful apology.  And for the most part, we refuse to recognize even the possibility that they are repentant.  We assume that their penitence is insincere and that their apology is just a media ploy.  There are certainly public figures who only apologize to placate the public, but I have a hard time believing that every apology we hear on television is completely insincere.  We are in danger of becoming so jaded about the penitence of public figures that we won’t be able to recognize apologies from those who are closest to us.

PC_Chick-Fil-A_2012-08-01As you probably remember, there was a dust-up this summer about fast food giant Chick-fil-A’s support of a variety of anti-gay causes.  There were boycotts by the gay community and its allies, while conservative groups organized to eat more of the chain’s chicken sandwiches.  A nasty, public, and frankly annoying debate raged for several weeks on message boards, talk radio, and cable news.  Behind the scenes, however, Dan Cathy, the COO of Chick-fil-A, was reaching out to the gay community.  In an article published in January, Shane Windmeyer, a gay-rights activist, told the story of how he got to know Dan Cathy.  Evidently, Cathy wanted to understand how his stance was hurtful, and if possible, he wanted to make amends.  I’ll let you read the article, but as a result of his conversations with Windmeyer, Cathy withdrew his support from the most divisive organizations.  Windmeyer makes it very clear that Cathy didn’t change his position; he changed a behavior that had been destructive of relationships and community.

The most striking part of this article to me was the comments section.  Just after Windmeyer told a story of dialogue, mutual understanding, and dare I say penitence, people responded by telling the activist that he was being played, that Dan Cathy had reached out to him for the sole purpose of improving Chick-fil-A’s image.  While I was saddened to read these jaded responses, I was hardly surprised.  We live in a culture where penitence is suspect and apologies are dubious.  As Christians, however, we are called to be countercultural.  We are called to trust in a person’s penitence.  We are called to trust that those who have recognized the destructiveness of their behavior and changed it must be welcomed back into the community, regardless of what they have done in the past.  Lent is an opportunity for us to think about those people we have not been able to forgive, to think about those people we have excluded from our lives, and to bring them back into the fold.  It isn’t easy for us to get over the mistrust that has been so deeply engrained by our culture.  But we can move forward, confident that, no matter how notorious our wrong, it is God who is reconciling us to each other.