Clean My Heart!

It is Spring Time. We have light! That means I have the “opportunity” to work in the yard. There are trees to prune, weeds to pull, and pick up fallen fruit from the ground.

I prefer to pull weeds with ungloved hands, digging in with my fingers, so as to feel the roots. And, when pruning, I put the ladder right up into the tree, working on branches that are overhead. No branch has yet hit my head–at least I don’t think so. But I am often showered with leaves and dust as the branch falls to the ground. After some time in the tree, I’ll put the branches into the trash can. They never fit without my performing the trash smash from inside the can. When I’m done, you can bet a good share of yard debris clings to me. I look like a character out of a Tolkien novel…the walking tree!

Yard work is followed by one of the best moments of life: standing in a hot shower and washing all the mud away. Having felt so dirty, it feels so good to be washed clean.

In the superscription of Psalm 51, we are told David wrote this Psalm when he felt quite unclean. The prophet, Nathan, just delivered God’s message which was “David, God knows what you’ve done.”

What David had done was to make Bathsheba pregnant. When David brought Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, back from battle, and Uriah did not sleep with Bathsheba (because those were the rules for soldiers), the king sent Uriah out to be killed in battle, so as not to be found out.

It was all good if it were only humans he wanted to deceive. David tries to go on as if nothing has happened. He takes Bathsheba into his court. This makes him look generous. And he didn’t even need any lawyers to keep his high reputation. Only one small problem…God.

When Nathan speaks the truth, David has no defense. With God as the audience, there is no way to make himself look good. The Psalm is written, according to tradition, when David’s encounter with Nathan shows him the mud on his face and the mud on his hands, and the mud where the sun don’t shine.

Standing there, knowing God knows, David must have wanted to crawl into a hole. Twice God had called David a man after God’s own heart. That moniker seems very far away. For, in this moment, David is the one who has broken God’s heart.

Now, David could have made many human responses.

David could have said God will forgive me in time and stepped away, calling on God the next time he was in need, like the young adult who does not follow her Father’s advice but calls Daddy when she runs out of money. I call this the Daddy Doormat response.

Or David could have slammed the door saying “God’s not the boss of me.” This is the dangerous dragon response because if someone tries to open the door, the dragon spits out fire!

Or David could have said…“If God is going to make such a big deal of this, then God is being petty.” I call this response the devious deflection. When someone calls us out on our misbehavior, we tell them it is really their problem. “Why are you worried about my behavior?” the misbehaving person asks. And follows with “If you are so bored as to be worried about me, well, you’ve really got a problem.”

I remember such a devious deflection from the tv show “My Name is Earl.” When Earl asks his ex-wife why the car, he had bought for their daughter, is not outside her home, she replies, all in one breath: “I have a gambling problem and just lost our car on a bet, don’t judge me!”

I was curious where the phrase first turned up and found that Chris Brown wrote an R&B song called “Don’t Judge Me.” It is set up that he is talking with his girlfriend who wants to know what he’d done. Chris Brown sings…
I don’t want to go there…we should never go there…why you want to go there…guess we got to go there.”

He has no desire to share his indiscretions. The chorus…

So please don’t judge me and I won’t judge you ‘cause it could get ugly before it gets beautiful.

Now that’s a powerful insight. The ugly precedes the beautiful!

David loved God. He couldn’t make use of any of the three ds. He didn’t turn God into a doormat daddy, he didn’t become a dragon, or engage in devious deception. Instead, he had to “went there.” He cried them ugly tears, the kind that you don’t want anyone to see you cry, because your face is red, snot is coming out of your nose, and the sounds you make sound like a snorting pig. When David stopped sobbing, he called out from the ugliness he was feeling in his heart:

“My sin is ever before me.”
“Indeed I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.”

And, because he is feeling so low, he believes there is a possibility that God would never want to see him again. So he bellows:

“Do not cast me away from your presence.”

He cries out, not to a disinterested universe, but to God, the one he loves.
Oh, some Christians like to skip the ugly tears and go directly to forgiveness…kind of the Chris Brown approach…don’t dwell on the past. I don’t want to go there. He’s got his lady; we’ve got Jesus. We are not perfect but we are forgiven.

The trouble with that is we never see the mud that is caked onto our souls. A prophet shows up at our door with a mirror and we descend into the 3 ds…turning God into a daddy doormat—do what I want! or deteriorating into dangerous dragons—“aaaaaa”, or employing devious deflection—“don’t judge me.” Sometimes, like a juggler, we toss all three into the air.

Avoid the ugly and you will miss the beautiful. I want you to get to the beautiful. What a shame it would be to miss it! You can see it shining through as David sings. Every time he speaks of his sin, he calls on God to wash him clean.

Verse 2: Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.

And, every now and then he breaks into praise. In fact, he starts with it…
“Have mercy on me, O God, is followed by “according to your steadfast love.” (verse 1)

After he talks about being born guilty, he writes

You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” (verse 6)

Even verse 8 resounds with praise…

“Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice!” (verse 8)

David imagines his crushed bones rejoicing! Not only because it feels good to have all that dirt washed off but because not only is God his God when he is a warrior and king; God, he is discovering, chooses to be his God when he has done an unspeakable thing.

In verse 9 you can picture David turning away in shame: “Hide your face from my sins, blot out all my iniquities.”

And then, pause, as if God has gently taken his chin and lifted it so God might gaze upon David’s face, David beseeches:

“Create in me a clean heart O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”

One moment he doesn’t want God to get close enough to see him. The next moment, David, feeling the light shining upon his face, asks God to make well his heart.

In verse 11 David expresses his panic “Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.”

God responds. Something happens to enable David to stand taller and answer back in verse 12: “restore to me the joy of your salvation and sustain in me a willing spirit.”

The light no longer shines upon David’s sin but shines through him pointing again to joy. David, like a clean prism reflects the colors of the rainbow, leading to the pot of gold.

When we feel deeply a wrong we’ve done, it is natural to want God to look away. So we look away from God until we can get ourselves all made up again, if we can get ourselves all made up again. Scripture calls us to a different response.

When you are so ashamed that you dare not look for God, expect Nathan to come knocking on your door. When you are told what you don’t want to hear, and we’ve all been there sisters and brothers, it is going to hurt. If you don’t duck it, you are going to scream awhile and cry some ugly tears. But I want to plant something into your brain today … those ugly tears lead to something beautiful. When you are confronted with your own sin, do not crawl into a hole. Use it. It is an opportunity to enter into a deeper relationship with your God.

God is not only your God when you are powerful like a king; God is your God even when you’ve done an unthinkable thing.

And, yes, having experienced God working in your heart, even your crushed bones will rejoice.

In the Stars, a sermon

There was a time when David and I would argue something fierce. So, we got married.

Even now, when we argue, I want to have the last word, because that means I am right.

Despite my ego, however, I’ve learned that, sometimes, he is right. And, when I’m at my best, instead of feeling like I’ve lost some kind of battle, I can celebrate. Because, to gain a new insight that gives life to me or our daughter or our world is worth celebrating!

Both the Psalmist and Abram, experience an inner and world changing conversation. They are given a new way of life because they allow God to have the last word. God’s word brings life!

It all began when God introduced God’s self to Abram , saying “Hello!” “I am God, the Almighty.” It feels real casual, like in the movie “O God!” where George Burns talks to John Denver in a grocery store wearing big glasses and a baseball hat with a stylized G. But, while John Denver has much to say, on this first meeting, Abram is silent. Hearing God, he falls on his face. What did you expect? The big G is a whole lot more awesome than an old guy in flannel with a cigar in his mouth.

And God says, “Walk before me and be blameless, and I will make you exceedingly numerous.”

At first glance this seems to be a bad deal. God is behind Abram, watching everything he does. It is worse than Santa checking his list twice! God expects Abram, a descendant of Adam to be blameless. Doesn’t God understand it is a human God is speaking to? Humans got thrown out of the garden and thought it a good idea to create the Chia pet. And he, at 99, is being asked to start a new family as if 99 is the new 30.

To find what is life giving about this word, we have to search deeper.

Let’s start with that phrase: Walk before me. Walk can be literal or figurative. Walk with me can mean let’s walk to the park. Or it means to “walk” with someone on their life’s journey. It means to be with them.

That ominous prepositional phrase “before me,” instead of suggesting God is lurking behind, the Hebrew word connotes being in God’s presence.
Walk before me can be understood as “Let us do life together.”

Next, “be perfect,” also has a different meaning than being a saint or having a figure that walks the high fashion runway or Shaun White’s double mixed twist.

It is means to be complete, be sound, and be whole.

As I hear it, the word is less a command on Abram and more a promise. Walk with me and be whole.

Then there’s that last part about being numerous.

At 99, God is not promising to give Abram a large family so they can settle down and tend to a farm or for him to be the next reality tv star of a show called Eight is not Near Enough.

God’s promise is for Abram to be an ancestor of a “multitude of nations,” a phrase found in both verses 4 and 5. In verse 6, a slight variation, with God saying “I will make nations of you.”

God’s covenant with Abram reaches beyond a single nation. God isn’t interested in maintaining borders. God is interested in reaching you.

As I was thinking on scripture, I heard a report that VP Pence called Billy Graham, who just passed into heaven at 99 years old, a great American. I can’t help but think Billy, who toured the nations, calling people into a relationship with their Father, God, is campaigning heaven for a phone so he might call Pence up and politely correct the error. To serve God is to serve that which reaches way beyond a nation.

In our scripture, ninety nine year old Abram is renamed Abraham. My friend, Jennie McNulty (google her for more funny), noted that “ha” is added to his name. I imagine there is some Hebrew reason for it. But, it is fun to think of it as God putting an exclamation point on this new work…”HA!” “Ha…Ha!” See what I’ve done!

Abraham is the ancestor of those who would walk before God and, in that journey, be made whole. Through Abraham, God plants a seed of faith that multiplies so that the number of his descendants is as many as are the stars in the night sky!

And as the song says…Father Abraham had many sons (and daughters!)..I am one of them and so are you… You are a child of God and you are a child of God and you are a child of God … so let’s all praise the Lord.

To praise the Lord, we turn to the Psalm.

John Goldingay, Bible professor at Fuller seminary, writes that Psalm 22 offers a truer comfort than that oft said phrase, “God is always with you.” He argues that, surely, that isn’t true when someone is crying out “Why have you forsaken me?!”

To understand his meaning, you should know the beginning of the Psalm goes like this:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
But I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised by the people.

In these first 6 verses you can hear the Psalmist struggling to remain in relationship despite feeling abandoned. At one moment, he calls “I cry out by day and you do not answer,” and in the next breath, he sings “in you our ancestors trusted. They trusted and you delivered them.” The Psalmist refuses to let go of God.

Goldingay says the Psalm “invites those of us who experience suffering to find ways to remind God and us of God’s faithfulness, to remind God and us of God’s involvement in the world, to plea with God to change, and [here is my favorite part] to believe strongly enough in our argument that God will, in fact, respond.”

Not only does the Psalm invite us but it shows us how God responds when we argue our case but then allow God to have the last word.

Now, over to Duke Divinity’s Old Testament Scholar Ellen Davis who gives great insight into these two verses:

To [God], indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
Davis translates these verses as “’Let all those who go down to the dust (kolyôredê ‘àpàr) bow before him, who cannot keep themselves alive.”
One who could not keep himself alive…isn’t that what the Psalmist felt when he began the Psalm, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” and when he laments “But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people?”

He was dead inside. He had nothing except a faith. His faith cries out to the God who, through Abraham, promised to be his God…first in lament and then turning into praise.

He could not keep himself alive. So he bowed down to the one who gave him life. He bowed down to the one who promised Abraham life. He bowed down to the one who gives you life.

And, when he did, when he left all his arguments on the table, when he didn’t try stopped trying to be right, God lifted him up.

His lament is interrupted with a “ha…an aha.” We don’t hear the content, but he was given a word. The Psalmist shifts. The dirt takes form and Psalmist rises up out of the ground, no longer a worm but man, a woman, a community, a people all calling back to the God whose word creates life with the exclamation, “I will live for him!”

I will live for God!

Walk with me.

I know that you’ve had those days when you went to bed early because life was that overwhelming. The day’s problems multiplied and remained unsolved. You weren’t feeling so good about yourself at that moment.

I’ve been there!

There are days when I want no one near me because I feel the part of the Psalm which says “I am a worm,” crawling in all different directions. I need some time to find my brain again—if not that, at least my faith…remembering

he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him.

Remembering…I am walking before my God. I am being made whole. I am a child of Abraham, an inheritor of God’s promise to be my God.
Holding on tight until I receive the word that brings life, the word that reforms me, and the word that fills me with such joy that my whole being shouts out…

I will live for God!

Have faith. The word will come. The situation around you may not change but you will. And that, my friends, will bring you life.

Psalm 22:23-31
Genesis 17: 1 – 7

Signs of Hope

cropped-cimg0043.jpgI was a folk song singing whirlwind when I grew up.  I loved the songs “If I had a Hammer,” “Blowing in the Wind,” and “One Tin Soldier.”   I love the scriptures, like Isaiah 2, which poetically describe a peace yet to come.  So it was hard for me to watch Scorsese’s documentary film on Dylan.  I watched my peace loving friends “boo” this man who wanted to keep on creating in new ways.  As long as he fit into their folk singing box, he was their favorite son.  As soon as he sang Maggie’s farm to an electrified band, he was the one who had betrayed the movement.  One man called out from the audience, “Judas.”

Often God, like Dylan, is asked to play the same old songs again and again when what God really desires is to be God.  God’s Holy Spirit needs room to create.  God’s creative force breaks open boxes and boundaries and uses all kinds of people, in all kinds of places, to turn that spear into a pruning hook.

Making peace is hard.  It requires more than just setting down our weapons.  It requires we get involved with people who are very different from us.  It requires we listen.  It requires we not put people into a box.  As there are infinite notes to make a song so too there are infinite combinations of scripture and person to make sons and daughters who lead us in God’s ways of peace.

Dylan knew who he was.  When that man called out “Judas,” Dylan responded, “Liar.’  He then backed away as if he was going to start the second set.  Struck by something else, he went back to the microphone and said “I don’t believe you.”  Then, he began to play.

We say here at North Long Beach Christian Church, “Here You are Loved.”  We love you too much to put you in a box.  We will give you the experience of worship and teachings from scripture you need to become a son and daughter who walks in the ways of peace.  And, guess what?  God loves you even more.

Come, get up to the mountain, a place apart from society’s noise, and learn the ways of God.  And, get on doing your holy work.   For the world, indeed, is in need of makers of peace.

Heather

 

 

When you have lost

The first thing of note in Jesus’ parable (Luke 16: 1- 13, at the end of the blog) is Jesus has given the rich man the last word.

The rich man gets the final word, but the manager carries the story.

The manager is first cast in light of the Prodigal son whose story, not by accident, is told right before this one (Luke 15).  Scripture says the manager squanders his master’s property.  The Greek word for squanders is the same word used to describe what the Prodigal son does with his inheritance.  The rich owner sees what is happening and fires him.

Scripture gives voice to the troubled manager’s inner dialogue as he decides what to do.

Before we listen to his words, let’s play the insightful game of what he doesn’t do.

What doesn’t he do that he might have done?

He might have put all the blame on the rich man, saying, that rich man never did care about me or anyone else!

He might have put all the blame on himself.  I really blew it.  I squandered money and lost a good job.  What a loser I am!

He might have become defensive, chosen to fight the charges, found a lawyer.

That’s what he could have done.   Yet, the manager strolls down a completely different path.  Instead of fighting to keep what he once had or looking to shame and blame the rich man or himself, he pragmatically looks towards his future, asking what will I do now?

I’m not strong enough to dig and I’m too proud to beg. 

So what will I do?

The cartoon balloon rises above his head.

The manager’s answer is utterly optimistic:  I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.

His answer reveals two things:  He believes there is a future for him.  And, it reveals how he will act to create that future.

Believe in a future.

Act to create that future.

That is scripture’s word to us about what to do when we have lost.

Believe in a future.

Act to create that future.

That’s exactly what we have done here for the last 4 years.  We began by telling the story of a group of people willing, not only to worship in the 90805, but willing to serve the people in the 90805.  Through newsletters and facebook posts, we got word out about how we are living into our mission:  To be a reliable testimony to our living God.

We have had thanksgiving dinners, expanded our food pantry, given away goods and clothes to our neighbors, cleaned up the education wing preparing it for the new school which serves young people who have had to drop out of high school, hosted a parenting class and an exercise class, taken people through the entire Bible and a class focused on sexuality and the scriptures, hosted two Praise Rallys, hosted community meetings, provided a 2 year home for the Compton based Divas dance group that allowed them to get their program off the ground, turned the Mural room into a room the community can use, fixed the stained glass sanctuary windows, and solved the problem of the stained ceiling.

I could go on and on.

Before we got started, it looked like we had lost.  The education wing smelled.  The school that had moved in couldn’t meet its bills.  Our board was tired. We almost closed our doors.  And then…

We looked out and chose to believe there was a future.

We chose to act to create that future.

Now, because we told our story, Community Church, Congregational United Church of Christ in Corona del Mar has chosen to expand their mission to help us.  They see us as doing work they cannot do where they live.  They see we have a future and have acted to help us live into it.  Because of them, our Children’s Ministry Director, Ms. Jill Johnson, is with us today!

Their giving does not displace ours.  In a few weeks, we will have covenants out asking for pledges of time and money.  Your pledges allow us to do the work we do here.  Furthermore, they are documents to your faith, to your willingness to act that the church may be a reliable testimony to our living God.

Upon that page you testify…

Here at NLBCC there is a future!

Here, at NLBCC, you are willing to give of yourself to build the future God has for us.

Okay, enough bragging about what we are doing, let’s get back to the scripture.

The hope filled manager looks up from his trouble and puts his hope in the possibility that he would be welcomed into people’s homes.

I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.

As we look for the meaning of this parable, it also helps to know that this story is remembered during the early days of Christianity and only in Luke.  We understand, from Paul’s writings, and other missives of the time, that the early Christian church met in homes.  Indeed the idea of home ties together these three stories told together in Luke.

Last week, we heard Jesus tell the parable of the lost sheep to the Pharisees who asked, why does he eat with sinners?  Since Jesus was a wandering rabbi, he had to be entering the homes of said sinners, eating with them at their tables.  The Prodigal son follows last week’s story, the story of the young man who takes his father’s inheritance, squanders it, and then returns home.  This week, it is clear that the clever manager seeks a way to be welcomed into other’s homes.

Home is the place where meals and intimacies are shared.  In a Christian context, the table is the place where bread is broken and forgiveness is poured out; it is where Jesus’ life and sacrifice are remembered.

One by one the manager meets with those who owe his master a debt.  In each case, he decides on an appropriate amount of debt to forgive.  Clearly there is no set percentage when the oil is reduced from 100 to 50 barrels and wheat is reduced from 100 to 80 bundles.

The manager believes a future is possible and acts to make it happen.  And as he acts, watch this, he brings the debtors along with him.  By his forgiving a substantial amount of their debt, they enter into a new possibility that their debt will someday be paid.

“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

And the rich man, instead of being angry at the change of accounts, commends the manager because he acted shrewdly, fronemos, thoughtfully, wisely.

And then starts the litany of moral endings because the gospel writer is so dang uncomfortable giving a rich man the last word.  And yet…that is exactly what I think Jesus intended.

The rich man of Jesus’ story is given the ability to see all that is happening which allows the rich man to offer his final judgment.  Scripture uses the word dishonest to underscore that the rich man knew the manager was not playing by the rules.  Yet, the rich man, the master who is now called kurios, Lord, neither stops the manager nor scolds him.   Instead the rich man, the lord, kurios, judges the dishonest manager’s act thoughtful and wise.

In so doing, he calls us …

To believe in a future

To act to create that future.

It is a future which opens doors, allows us to sit at table with others, the sinners and the Pharisees, the rich and the poor, and share the bread of our Lord’s body, the wine of forgiveness.

The rich man is the one called lord.

Our Lord, like the rich man, does not need more wealth.   Our Lord, like the rich man, smiles when debt is forgiven.  Because the one thing our Lord is most keen on…

Our doing what it takes to open doors to our Lord’s forgiveness and grace.

Managers of God’s wealth…let’s get busy.

 

Amen.

The Parable of the Dishonest Manager (NRSV)

16 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2 So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3 Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7 Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly;….

And Yet…

Have you ever tried to be good believing that if you caused no trouble, did all your chores, smiled enough, and obeyed God’s law that all would be well?  And, then it wasn’t. 

When we get to the sixth chapter of Daniel, the Jews in exile have been beaten up by the conqueror’s tide.  They kings just keep on coming!  We’ve met King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, the dreamer; King Belshazzar of the banquet; and now, we meet king Darius of Medes. 

During each reign, the exiles from Israel, represented by Daniel and his friends, try to make a life in a foreign nation while holding on to their faith in God.

You might remember when we first met Daniel he successfully made a friend of the palace guard.     Daniel did not want to eat the roasts of the banquet hall and requested the palace guard give to him, instead, simpler food like vegetables.  The palace guard protested, saying that he would lose his job if Daniel became skinnier and weaker than the others.  So, Daniel, responding to the guard’s need, said, “let’s give it a try for a week. If I appear any less fit than the others, then you can give me the palace food.”  Well, Daniel stayed just as healthy and strong as all the rest.  Daniel listened and responded to the need of the palace guard and both thrived.

Cool, right?  What an example!  And yet…

In Chapter 3, Daniel’s friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who are known to be good leaders and loyal to the king, are thrown into the fiery furnace for worshipping their God instead of the king’s statue.  King Nebuchadnezzar, angered by their unrepentance, shouts, “who is the god who can save you?” 

And, praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the three men walk out of the fire unscathed. 

Cool, right?  What an example!  And yet…

By the time we get to chapter 6, you would think we would be beyond the need to throw Israel to the lions.   Daniel has done everything right.  He is so good that the king is considering giving him the top position!  The other administrators and satraps, who want to take him down cannot find any grounds against Daniel in his conduct of government affairs (6:4).

They say, “We will never find any basis for charges against this man Daniel unless it has something to do with the law of his God.” 

In the same sentence they tell of Daniel’s great ability to govern, they proclaim his faithfulness to God.  They know to whom he answers.

Cool, right?  What an example!   

Daniel is competent, friendly, kind, and faithful both to the king and to God. 

And yet…

His political enemies, seeking to keep their power, pull out the old trick and convince the king to make a law that anyone who bows down to a god other than the king, shall be thrown into the lion’s den.  The king agrees.

Not cool. 

The king who recognizes Daniel is faithful to his God, and only his God, agrees to this stupid edict that had been out of play for years.  What a moron!  Is he really that dumb that he can’t see through the guile of the satraps and administrators?  Come on, what do the exiles have to do to be able to live in peace?!    

It is like the Looney tunes Wiley Coyote using TNT once again to try to blow up the roadrunner.  The coyote never gets it; never leaves the roadrunner for easier prey.  And while the roadrunner never stops running, he is unfazed by the Coyote…he continues to do what he always does…”beep beep”…he runs.coyote with tynamite

Like Wiley Coyote the kings never understand the limits of their power.  Even the most friendly king Darius repeats Nebuchadnezzar’s blunder.  Spurred on by his advisors, he makes the edict that all must worship him and him alone and sets his coyotes lose. 

So Daniel is given the choice his friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego once faced, the choice between empire and God.  And Daniel, unfazed by the cost, does what he always does, he chooses God:

“Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem.  Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before.”

He does what he has always done, he prays.  And, he doesn’t care who sees him. 

The roadrunner runs; the man of God prays. 

And, on this day, when his life is in danger, we are told that Daniel prays a prayer of thanksgiving. 

Meanwhile, the king’s men scurry about with their dynamite. 

“Then these men went as a group and found Daniel praying and asking God for help.  So they went to the king and spoke to him about his royal decree:  ‘Did you not publish a decree that during the next thirty days anyone who prays to any god or man except to you, O king, would be thrown into the lions’ den?”

When the king hears it is Daniel about whom they speak, we are told that, unlike Nebuchadnezzar’s furious order to bring Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to him, King Darius works until sunset to try to free Daniel. 

See, see, King Darius cares for Daniel.  He is the best king of all of them. 

Cool right?  What an example!  And yet…

Daniel in the Lion's DenDaniel was put into the den of lions. 

“A stone was brought and placed over the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it with his own signet ring and with the rings of his nobles, so that Daniel’s situation might not be changed.”

 

“At the first light of dawn, the king got up and hurried to the lion’s den.” 

At the first light…

And while the stone was not rolled away, there were no bones, Daniel was alive and well. 

He was alive and well, but the stone was not rolled away. 

Daniel’s fate still rests with the inept king.  

Daniel’s faithfulness cannot move the large, heavy rock that is the empire. 

I see two stones.  Two very large boulders meant to keep faith in.  The stone that kept Daniel in the Lion’s Den and the stone that was placed in front of Jesus’ tomb.  This first stone tells of the power of the empire to keep a people down.  And the other tells of the faith of God to raise people up!  The first sign of Jesus’ resurrection is that the stone had been moved. 

But that is to come.  Daniel and the exiles experience a world in which their faith cannot move the stone.  The empire is simply too strong.  And so, the book of Daniel turns from legend telling to apocalyptic visions of God’s justice.  Because faith cannot move the stone, the exiles retreat from this world into the spiritual world. 

In present day, I’ve heard my brothers and sisters in this neighborhood speak about spiritual warfare, about fasting, and seeking visions.  The feeling is there is a rock that is keeping them in the den…only faith can help them see the light despite the dark and the lion’s roar. 

You don’t have to be poor to believe we are under spiritual siege. 

We are in a battle against religious terrorism.  Indeed I proclaim there is a spiritual war going on.  We are in a battle against evil which causes frustrated and isolated people to shoot up schools and movie theaters and churches.  There is a spiritual war going on.  When young people continue to needlessly lose their lives because of the fear that exists between police and people of color, there is a spiritual war going on.    

It is so much easier to blame guns or the hijab or police or the one who was shot.  No one is asking…what was the tenor of the faith they followed?  For most…there was no faith.  For the few, there was a distorted version of God. 

There is a spiritual war going on. 

We are called to enter the battle.  In North Long Beach, we come face to face with the scars of those who have gotten beaten up.   We must enter the battle.  Let’s make sure we are prayed up.  Let’s make sure we have a habit of prayer and that the prayer begins not with God do this or that but with thanksgiving!  Allow God to strengthen your spirit.   

The spiritual work allows us to be in the den of lions and live. 

Don’t give up on believing the empire can change.

But…when the empire is stupid…when the empire is pushing you down…when the empire rather throw you to the lions than question its beliefs…be ready to go to war.  Because your God can still be found in the dark.  Your God can save you from the flood.  Your God will not let the lions have you.

Daniel, and Daniels family, live! 

Those who entrapped Daniel are thrown to the lions…both them and their families.  The schemers, who put their faith in their ability to control the king, die.  Their way is not allowed to continue on. 

The exiles live! 

Now we have a king that lasts beyond the empires!  Our king, Jesus, can move the stone from the inside of the den, of the tomb.  He can move the stone that was meant to keep him and us in.  He can move the stone from the inside!

Look for him! 

He’s the extra man in the fire.

Listen for him!

In the dark, he’s the one calling your name.

Reach out to him!

He’s the one taking you by the hand leading you outward into the dawn. 

No stone can keep him in the dark.  He’s got you.  He’s got me. 

The one who can move the stone from the inside!

 

Here they come!

Oh sh…. That’s what came into my mind as the four young children entered the office last night around 5 p.m. asking if Pastor Heather could come out to play. I really wanted to hang out with the musicians in the office, preparing for the Praise Rally on Saturday. Or make phone calls to some of the people I need to touch base with in the evenings. But there they were, scurrying all around the office..

I walked the kids to the gym. They watched Coach’s players move around for about 5 minutes. And, then they were ready to move around. “Can we paint” one asked. “I don’t want to paint,” said another. I pursued the first idea which led me to the school pantry.

The school pantry is a project of my daughter’s sponsored through a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) grant, to make sure kids in our neighborhood have the physical supplies they need to succeed. The children grabbed item after item, asking “can I have this?”   It made “are we there yet” sound like a fond memory. Rulers, simple calculators, paper, pens and pencils all found their way into bags—the little girl organizing it with great care.

We talked about Jesus for about a minute. “My mom says I should cry about Jesus…you know how he died for us.” Two of them looked sad for a moment, then they were off, racing around, looking for more loot. “Can I have this?”

When they were satiated, the painting forgotten, they wanted to know if they could come tomorrow. “No. I’m not here tomorrow. Ministers have a lot of things they have to do; a lot of people they need to talk with; people who are in need of one to show them the ways of God” I said.

I arranged for them to come a week from today, from 4 – 5 p.m., because if I can keep them in God’s Spirit for an hour, it will be a victory. They asked for milk and cookies. That I can do. I have their apartment numbers and their phone numbers. And, I’m coming up with a plan to keep them in the courtyard with a container of games & toys they can play so they aren’t tempted by things like paper clips, staplers, and the amazing paper cutter.

That’s how it is here. God never seems to leave me, leave us, alone. Opportunities to serve abound.

Tomorrow we open the doors to two new exercise groups—one for moms and young children and the other for elders. I’m counting on all those fitness classes I’ve taken over the years to come up with ways to get people moving. And then there’s Debra, coming up with all kinds of ideas on the fly, who has also made lunch for the seniors. Community and an opening to better health are our goals.

Saturday is our Praise Rally which features a new thing—a gospel jam where people who play instruments are invited to come forward and jam for 15 minutes on some well-known gospel songs. We also have singers, a dancer, and some who praise through stylized sign language movements to Christian songs.

On Sunday…a message on how it matters to the community how we choose to commit our selves and our bodies.

Come on, admit it, despite memories of scratchy suits and sitting out long sermons in uncomfortable pews, these days, church is on the move and it is never boring! When “oh sh…” becomes “oh boy, an opportunity to make a difference,” you know the Holy Spirit is at work.

In Christ,

Reverend Heather Miner