Sunday, July 7, 2013

So Near and Yet So Far

So Near and Yet So Far
Luke 10:1-11
July 7, 2013[1]

When you see flashing blue lights, what is the first thing that you think of?
I remember a Sunday evening when I was in about the second or third grade.  It was shortly after Christmas, so it was dark.  I was riding in the back seat of the car with my best friend—I had spent the afternoon with Keith and his family, and now we were returning to church for the Sunday evening service.  Keith had received a flashlight as one of his Christmas presents that year.  This was a special flashlight—a solid white beam on the one end, and a flashing red light on the other end.  This was in the days in which police cars still used flashing red lights.  At some point along the way, Keith started the red light flashing to see if he could make his dad think that he was being pulled over by the police.  We were so proud when Keith’s grandmother, also sitting in the front seat, gave her son that cold sounding rebuke, saying that she kept telling him to slow down.
It is an odd thing to me how the presence of police can be threatening to some and assuring to others.
I often have heard about how a child who grew up in peaceful surroundings will look upon a police officer as a friend.  Take a child who has grown up in an atmosphere in which the police are “out to get them,” and they will respond to the same police officer in fear.  I saw this first hand when I visited South Africa.  To this day, some people see the police as instruments of apartheid—of terrible segregation.  Others see the police as care givers, helpers.  You don’t have to go too far back in the history of the United States to see the same thing.
I see signs of this in our Gospel Lesson this morning.  Two times, Jesus reminds his listeners that “the Kingdom of God has come near.”  This takes place at a time when Jesus is sending out a large group of followers to preach the Good News (some translations say 70; others say 72, depending on which manuscripts they used for their sources).  This lesson takes place soon after Jesus and his disciples were rejected by a village in Samaria; the villagers knew that Jesus was on his way towards Jerusalem, and the old prejudices were deep rooted.  Jesus is commissioning the group of 70 or 72 to go out in advance to the communities through which he will be passing.  Jesus tells them that if they are received well in a community, they should spend some time there, gratefully receive the hospitality of the people, heal the sick, and tell the people that “the Kingdom of God has come near to you” (v. 9). 
But if they are not received well in a community, they should leave town, and on their way out, they should shake the dust off of their feet in protest, and tell the people that “the Kingdom of God has come near”  (v. 11).  Two messages with almost identical words, yet with two very different meanings.  The first time, it is a promise, a sign of hope and healing.  In the second, the message is a warning.  The context makes all the difference.
But there is something else that jumps out at me from those words.  The Kingdom of God has come near now—in the present tense.  The Kingdom has come here to stay.  It didn’t just pop up for a while 2,000 years ago and then disappear.  It isn’t just a promise for some time in the future that we can’t pinpoint.  The Kingdom of God is here today, if we can simply open our eyes to see it.  That may be good news to us.  That may be threatening news to us.  But just the same, it is here, all around us.
I keep coming back to the words of Psalm 139.  Do you remember these words?  We just read them a few weeks ago:
7 Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, "Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,"
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you (Psalm 139:7-12, NIV).
This is not only a description of things present.  It is a reminder of things to come.  There is a word of judgment here; it can feel threatening to those who have not experienced the Kingdom.  However, instead of feeling threatened, we can take this as a promise—a promise that:
If we are lonely, God is here.
If we are frightened, God is here.
If we are sad, God is here.
If we are happy, God is here.
If we are feeling great, God is here.
If we are suffering, God is here.
And when the day comes for us to end our earthly journey, God will be with us too, for he promised, “I will be with you always—even to the end of the age.
So if this is good news, why would people reject this news?  For some, it may have something to do with past experiences.  A lot of damage has been done to people in the name of faith.  For others, it has something to do with their overall world-view.  They just aren’t capable of seeing what we see.  They are like the fish swimming around, looking for the ocean, without being able to see that the ocean is all around them.
Naaman almost missed the Kingdom.  In our Old Testament Lesson, the healing work of God was offered to him in a way that was outside his frame of reference.  At first, Naaman rejected it.  He hadn’t traveled all the way from Damascus simply to take a bath in the muddy Jordan River.  There were plenty of much nice spas much closer to the comforts of home.  And to think that Elisha the prophet didn’t even have the courtesy to come out of his house to seen him.  Naaman was able to receive God’s healing only when he humbled himself and put aside his preconceived notions about how healing should take place.  And to think, he almost missed it.
Missing the Kingdom.  Think of it as lost opportunities.  To be so close to the Kingdom of God and not even recognize it. 
This is part of the reason that I think Vacation Bible School is so important.  It’s not as though I think we will connect fully with every child.  Sadly, the law of averages tells us probably not.  It’s not as though every child will come here willingly, without a fuss.  It’s not likely that every child will encounter a spiritual mountaintop experience.  Some may be focused more on the music, the crafts, the science journeys, what’s next for snacks.  But in between all of those activities, they will hear the Good News.
It’s a start in the journey—their faith journey.  Every time we can expose our children to the love of God shown in Jesus Christ, that’s a good thing. 
At the close of our Hymn of Response, I am going to ask all who are participating in Vacation Bible School to come forward so that we as a church can offer you a blessing.  Just as when Jesus sent out the seventy (or seventy-two) people, you have been sent by God to this place to share God’s love with the children of Fluvanna County.  Some may accept you; some may reject you (although I truly hope we won’t see our teachers shaking the dust off of their feet, even though they may feel like it at times!).  I hope that as you enter this week, you won’t feel as though we are sending you as “lambs in the midst of wolves” (v. 3).  I hope you won’t do it with the feeling of “it’s another VBS.  I can’t wait until this week is over.”  Rather, I hope that you will be able to recognize the mission field and the Kingdom.
Have you experienced the Kingdom this morning?  It has come very near to you.  Right here in Cunningham.  May God open our eyes to see it this day!
Copyright © 2013 by Thomas E. Frost.
All rights reserved.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.  A version of this sermon also was preached on July 6, 2013 at Dogwood Village in Orange, Virginia.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Passing the Mantle

Passing the Mantle
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
June 30, 2013[1]
I didn’t mean to raise a ruckus with my sermon title.  But the very morning that David Onimus posted the title for this morning’s sermon on the sign in front, I received a text message from Steve Nichols, who saw the sign on his way to work.  His text message asked me, “”I hope your Sunday sermon title does not reflect any impending change…”  Sorry if I alarmed you.  Last Sunday, my appointment to Cunningham was confirmed for another year!
But there was a “passing of the mantle” of sorts that I witnessed while at Annual Conference.  We had five of the sixteen district superintendents within the Virginia Conference took the stole they were wearing and place it over the shoulders of new district superintendents.  Our own Brenda Biler was one of them.  She removed the stole that she was wearing and placed it on the shoulders of The Rev. Danny Kesner.  With that act, responsibility for supervising the seventy-four churches in Charlottesville was transferred.  Dr. Biler literally “passed the mantle.” 
We see a passing of the mantle in our Old Testament Lesson this morning. 
It is hard for us to understand how significant Elijah was to the Nation of Israel.  He was a man of God who stood up to a King and Queen who were sinful.  Elijah was known, of course, for his miraculous works, such as calling forth the drought that struck Israel, raising the son of the widow of Nain, the famous show-down on Mt. Carmel with the prophets of Baal.  But these external acts were possible only because Elijah was a man of extraordinary spiritual awareness.  Elijah talked with God. 
Elijah had many followers, many disciples.  In an age and place surrounded by polytheism, these disciples were radical followers of the one true God, following the teachings of His prophet.  We read about a “company of prophets” living in Bethสนel.  But despite this community, none of them seemed to have the devotion and the dedication of Elisha.  The Lord already had given orders to Elijah to anoint Elisha as his successor.  This part of the story predates this morning’s reading—the process is described in 1 Kings 19:19-21.  The process of anointing was very short and sweet—Elijah threw his mantle across Elisha’s shoulders, and Elisha was expected to follow Elijah from that time forward as Elijah’s understudy.
A “mantle” can be a cloak, a large, sleeveless tunic, cloak or cape.  It also can mean a symbol of authority—sort of like the stole that I wear (although the origins of the stole are quite different).  In this case, Elijah’s mantle was probably a cloak of some sort.  And we see that cloak or mantle taking a central part in today’s reading.
It’s clear that Elijah’s days on earth are at an end.  Elijah’s life has a whirlwind finish—although his means of transportation are not so important to our theme today.  What is important is that he asked Elisha, his understudy, what he could do for him.  Elisha responded, “Please let me inherit a double portion of your spirit” (2 King 2:9).  Elijah responded that Elisha’s request was a hard one; but it all boiled down to one thing—if Elisha stayed with Elijah to the very end, his request would be granted.  If not, it would not (2 Kings 2:10).
“A double portion of your Spirit.”These days, we interpret Elisha’s request somewhat casually, just as we would ask for a double serving of mashed potatoes.  But a “double portion” was a big deal in Ancient Israel.  The “double portion” literally meant the portion of an estate that would go to the first born son—two thirds of the estate.  Elisha was saying, “I want to be your heir,” --- in other words, “I want to step into your shoes, I want to take on your role and responsibilities.  In some respects, it might be loosely equivalent to going to the Bishop and saying “I want your job when you are done.”
Something else interesting is taking place.  Elijah literally tries to discourage Elisha.  This is even more challenging than anything the Board of Ordained Ministry put before me during my candidacy process.  Elijah tests him.  Three times in chapter 2, Elijah tries to leave Elisha behind, but Elisha refuses.  Each time, Elisha replies, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you” (vs. 2, 4 and 6). 
Elijah is taken away in a chariot of fire, and he drops his mantle on the ground.  The mantle—a garment, but also a symbol of authority.  Elisha picks it up.  Elisha passed Elijah’s test, but the question remains—did it work?  Did Elisha merely pick up a piece of cloth, a garment?  Or has Elisha in some way been filled with the same Spirit that filled Elijah? 
There is only one way to find out.  He has to test it.  So Elisha takes that mantle that he had picked up from the ground, rolled it up.  I can see and hear Elisha, crying out at the top of his voice, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?”  What a gutsy question!  Elisha then used that rolled-up mantle to strike the Jordan River, just as he had seen Elijah do.  And lo and behold, the waters parted.  Elisha crossed on dry ground.
One lesson that jumps out at me from this story is that the mantle is not something that we receive passively.  It takes active effort on our part.  It takes persistence.  It takes a certain amount of hanging-on.  It requires us to remain faithful.  It requires us to surrender.  It requires us to reach out and pick it up off the ground.  It requires us to be gutsy enough to ask, “Where is the Lord?  And it requires us to trust enough to strike out, to move forward in faith.
We do not have a change in clergy for Cunningham this year; but with the beginning of a new Conference Year, we still are due for some inventory.  Are we as a church prepared to ask the challenging question, “Where is the Lord, the God of Cunningham?”  Am I prepared to ask that question as your pastor?  Are we strong enough, trusting enough to reach down for the mantle on the ground, pick it up, roll it up and strike it on the water?  And do we have enough trust to march forward, walking on the dry ground of the riverbed?
We have come so far as a church.  Think about it.
It seems like it was a long time in coming, but we have at last formed a Committee to think about Building for our Future, about our opportunities for ministry and the resources and facilities that we have available to us.  Are we ready to step forward with recommendations for our Church Facility within the next year? 
Cunningham has made a tremendous investment in our Youth.  This year, we are sending 18 children and youth to Summer Camp.  We have developed a wonderful fellowship of a dozen our so Middle School and High School Age youth, in addition to our strong children’s program.  Through the faithfulness of one of our members, we were able to add The Potter’s Wheel, giving us much needed space.  But that is just a starting point for the ministry opportunities.  We are exploring some exciting new ministry opportunities for the youth, but these take time, supervision, and funding.  Where will we go from here in sharing God’s love with the youth of Fluvanna County?
We have been tremendously blessed by God this year in our Worship Attendance and membership.  Attendance has been strong, we have received sixteen new members so far this year, five by profession of faith.  What are going to do to help form these people in the Christian faith?  This means Adult Christian Education.  Our job is not to build attendance; it is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  How will we go about this most important task?
Buildings and programs are important, but they are not the most important dimension to this story.  At their best, they can be reflections of the ways the spirit is moving in us and among us.  But that is the ultimate test.  The most important question I see facing us as a church is this:  Are we as a church, are we as individuals, am I as your pastor, ready to reach out and claim a double portion of the Spirit?  Are we ready to let our lives be transformed by God—not just on Sundays but on every day of the week?  Are we ready to let the Spirit of God forgive our sin, relieve our guilt, reconcile our broken relationships, change our values, increase our vision?  This is our ministry.  This is our vision—to be the spirit-filled, spirit-led people of God.  And our God promises to us that “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart (Jeremiah 29:13).
The mantle is there.  We can let it lie on the ground.  Or we can pick it up.  We can ask “Where is the Lord, the God of Cunningham?”  We can strike the water.  And we can walk on dry ground as we seek first the Kingdom of God. 
May it be so!
Copyright © 2013 by Thomas E. Frost.  All rights reserved.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.