Wash and Be Cleaned

July 3rd, 2022 homily on 2 Kings 5:1-14; Luke 10:1-24 by Pastor Galen

In a Moment, Everything Changed

Ashley was one of those people who seemed to have it all. She was brilliant, good looking, and incredibly talented. She had recently gotten married to a wonderful guy. Life was looking really good for Ashley. And then one day everything changed, when she and her husband were driving in their car late at night, and were broadsided by a drunk driver. Her husband emerged without a scratch, but Ashley was in a coma for several weeks. When she eventually did recover, she was unable to walk. Eventually, through physical therapy, she was able to regain some mobility, but to this day she uses a wheelchair to get around. 

It’s amazing how life can change in a single instant. One day we’re going about our business, with a particular set of goals and dreams, and priorities, and then all of a sudden something happens that radically reorients the trajectory of our lives.

Such was the case with Naaman, the successful military commander of the country of Aram who was favored by the king, and seemed to have it all – until he was struck with leprosy. Until then, Naaman had the power, money and prestige to get whatever he wanted or needed. He had a great family, a beautiful house, a wonderful wife. He had servants and soldiers who did whatever he told them to do. He had access to the best doctors and medical care that money could afford.

And so, you can imagine his shock when physician after physician told him that his disease was incurable. 

And not only incurable, but debilitating, degenerative, and life-threatening. 

His leprosy would one day cause him to become crippled, or paralyzed, and possibly even blind. There was nothing that he could do to prevent this, nothing that anyone could do to help him. The diagnosis was that he would be forced to live with this disease for the rest of his life, and slowly and painfully watch everything that he had worked so hard to gain gradually slip through his fingers.

Worst of all, because leprosy was believed to be highly contagious, Naaman would soon be banished from his friends and family, forced to live a life of loneliness and isolation. Naaman’s diagnosis was essentially a life sentence of solitary confinement.

A Young Girl’s Testimony

That is, until Naaman’s wife’s young servant girl spoke up. Forcibly taken away from her homeland, ripped away from her friends and family, it would have been easy for her to become embittered or cynical. Naaman himself may have been the one who took her captive. She had every right to hate him, every reason to rejoice in his impending demise.

And yet she spoke up. She spoke up with compassion, but also a sense of pride and dignity. Even in captivity, even after being forced to travel over 700 miles away from her home, she still remembered her homeland and she still remembered her God. And she remembered the prophet Elisha who performed miracles. And despite everything that she had experienced, she wanted her captor to know and experience the healing power of God.

And so she spoke up. “If only my master were with the prophet in Israel. Surely the prophet Elisha would be able to cure him of his disease.”

A Desperate and Extravagant Gift

Now, the fact that Naaman believed her, and that he went to such great lengths to travel all the way to Israel to find the prophet Elisha speaks to the power of this young servant girl’s testimony. She must have been known to be honest and trustworthy, or Naaman would have never believed her. 

But of course, Naaman was also incredibly desperate.

And so Naaman went to the king, who immediately drafted a letter to the King of Israel and sent Naaman along with “ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments.” (2 Kings 5:5).

Now this was an exorbitant sum of money.  Ten silver shekels was the average annual income in those days, and you could purchase a literal ton of grain for one gold shekel. So the ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten garments that Naaman brought with him were equal to 750 million dollars! 

Naaman was no doubt hopeful that such a large sum of money would impress and convince the prophet Elisha to heal him, despite everything he and his people had done to the Israelites.

Cleansed and Renewed

You probably know the rest of the story. Naaman arrives in Israel and delivers the letter to the king of Israel, most likely assuming that a prophet who had the ability to cure a disease such as leprosy must be a member of the royal court. 

The king of Israel thinks that the Aramean king is trying to start yet another battle with him (they have been fighting off and on for many years), because he knows that neither he nor anyone in his royal court has the power to heal Naaman. He tears his kingly robes as a sign of mourning and distress.

But the prophet Elisha hears of it and sends word to the king requesting that Naaman come to him to be healed.

Naaman travels to Elisha’s house, but Elisha doesn’t even come to the door. He sends a messenger out to Naaman, instructing him to go and wash seven times in the waters of the muddy Jordan River.

Naaman is offended. He just traveled 700 miles and brought ¾ of a billion dollars to be healed by this prophet, and the prophet tells him to wash in a dirty river? He could have washed in much cleaner rivers back home! At the very least he had expected the prophet to come outside and meet him and be impressed by the large sum of money that Naaman brought to him, and wave his arms in the air and call on his God to heal Naaman!

But Elisha doesn’t seem to be impressed by Naaman’s power, wealth, or prestige. Instead, like Naaman’s servant girl, he simply wants Naaman to know that there is a God in Israel who has the power to heal. And he knows that all that God requires is humble obedience and trust.

Naaman storms off, back in the direction of his homeland, but his servants chase after him and convince him to at least give it a try. What’s the worst that can happen? They’ve come all this way, Naaman might as well do what the prophet instructed him to do.

And so Naaman finally humbles himself, and obediently dips into the waters of the Jordan River seven times. And when he comes up after the seventh time he is healed. He is made new, cleansed of all his leprosy, his life is restored to him. His skin is made whole again, like the flesh of a young child. Naaman has gotten his life back.

Humble Obedience

Now it’s important for us to note how and why Naaman was healed.  Because, in the end, it wasn’t because of his vast sums of money or because of his power or prestige, or because of the fact that he was favored by the king. No, Naaman was healed because he was willing to believe the testimony of a compassionate servant girl, and because he humbly obeyed the simple command of an Israelite prophet.

Now I know that the words “humble” and “obedient” are not necessarily in fashion. Our society teaches us to “believe in ourselves,” and to “do whatever makes us feel good.”

And we as a country were founded on principles of freedom and independence. In fact, this weekend we celebrate our nation’s independence. 

But the Israelite prophets throughout the Hebrew Bible repeatedly called the people of every strata in society to turn to God in humility and trust, to remember their need for and dependence on God.

We see this, too, in Jesus sending his disciples out two by two, without a purse to carry money or a bag to carry extra clothes, and without even an extra pair of sandals, to proclaim that the Kingdom of God has come near. When the 72 were sent out, they weren’t to rely on whatever wealth, or status, or privilege, or whatever education they had or didn’t have. Rather, they were to accept the hospitality of strangers, and to look to God and to others for their provision.

Baptism and Communion

It is significant that when Naaman immersed himself in the waters of the muddy Jordan river, he was going down into the waters of the same river in which, centuries later, John the Baptist would invite people to repent and be baptized. The same river in which Jesus himself would be baptized as a humble expression of obedience to the mission to which he had been called. 

In humble obedience, Jesus would go on to carry out his mission of proclaiming God’s love for all people, giving his life on the cross as the ultimate expression of God’s love, rising again to remind us that this life is not all there is, and that there is hope even beyond the grave. 

This is what we remember when we are baptized – how we are cleansed and renewed and forgiven, not because of our wealth, or status, or privilege, but because of the mercy and grace of God. And it’s what we remember when we celebrate communion – how Jesus gave his life freely for us. 

An Invitation to All

It’s interesting to note that Naaman had been willing to go to great lengths to be healed. To travel so many miles, and to part with such an exorbitant sum of money. And yet, he was at first unwilling to humble himself by dipping into the waters of the muddy Jordan river. Perhaps it seemed too simple, too undignified. As his servant pointed out, Naaman would have been willing to obey if he had been told to do some difficult or heroic deed. But it wasn’t until he was willing to humble himself, to let go of how he was perceived by others, to put aside his wealth and status and privilege, and to engage in such a simple act as dipping into the waters of the muddy Jordan River, that he was healed and made new. 

Friends, this morning, I don’t know what may be holding you back from giving your all to Jesus. Perhaps you’ve worked hard to get where you are, and you don’t want to risk losing everything you’ve worked so hard to gain. Perhaps you’re worried about what others will think of you if you follow whatever step it is that God has called you to take. 

But it’s important to remember that no matter how secure we may think we are in this life, no matter what we feel like we have earned or how much we have achieved, the reality is that in an instant all of that could change.

And so rather than trying to find our security in what we have earned or achieved, how much better it is to turn to God in humble trust and obedience. To recognize our need and dependence on God for the very breath in our bodies. To humble ourselves and be willing to go wherever it is that God has called us, to do whatever it is that God is calling us to do. 

This morning may we turn to God in humble obedience, that we too may be cleansed and renewed, and so that we too may testify to the grace of God in our lives, so that all may come to know and experience the healing waters of God’s love.

Amen.

Great Power

June 26th, 2022 homily on 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 and Galatians 5:1, 13-25 by Pastor Galen

Great Power, Great Responsibility

It has often been said that “With great power, comes great responsibility.” While some may know of this quote mostly because of Marvel Comics and Spider-Man, this quote is actually a reformulation of an ancient adage going back at least to the first century BC. And the sentiment, though not the saying itself, is found throughout the Bible.

“With great power comes great responsibility.” There are many people in our world who are drawn to power, but may not always see or understand the weight of responsibility that comes along with it. 

This happened to me when I was in 7th grade and ran for the office of treasurer for my Middle school student government association. Now I’m not exactly sure why I decided to run for the office of treasurer. Maybe not many other people were running for the office and I thought I would have a good chance of winning. Or perhaps I had a friend that was running for another position in SGA and they encouraged me to run for office along with them. Or maybe I just wanted the title. I’m not sure.

Either way, I do remember that I got very excited about campaigning for office, because I had what I thought was the best and most original campaign slogan ever: “Vote for Galen, vote for Change!” Get it? Because as the treasurer, I was going to be dealing with money, and back when people used actual cash to buy things, they would get change back with their purchase. So I wanted to convey that a vote for me as the treasurer would not only bring about the much-needed turnaround that apparently our school was in dire need of, but also that I would maximize our middle school limited funding through frugal spending and conscientious accounting.

To drive home this point, I scotch-taped a penny to every one of the quarter-sheet flyers emblazoned with my campaign slogan Vote for Change that I gave out to the 100+ other students in my middle school. It was the best dollar that I ever spent, because not only did my marketing campaign catch people’s attention, but I won the election in a landslide!

Funny enough, while I remember my effective election campaign in great detail, I honestly do not remember a single decision that I made as treasurer that brought about significant or lasting change in my middle school. Nor do I really even remember enjoying keeping the financial records that much! I don’t think I really wanted to be the treasurer in actuality – I think I had just wanted the title. But I did learn through that experience that with power comes responsibility. 

A Double Portion the Inheritance

Such was the case with the prophet Elisha, who was mentored by the great prophet Elijah, and who, in 2 Kings chapter 2, asked Elijah for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit (2 Kings 2:9).

In asking for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, Elisha wasn’t just asking to have twice the charismatic personality of Elijah, or to be twice as popular as Elijah, or even to be able to perform twice as many miracles as Elijah performed. (Many people have gone to great lengths to show that Elisha went on to perform exactly twice as many miracles as Elijah – but the overall number depends on how you define miracles). 

But in asking to inherit a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, Elisha “was using cultural terms derived from inheritance law to express his desire to carry on Elijah’s ministry. [According to the book of Deuteronomy] inheritance law assigned a double portion of a father’s possessions to the firstborn son (see Deut 21:17).”

Now, as the younger brother of my family, I used to think it was unfair that in Bible times the oldest brother received a double portion of the inheritance. But in her book, Stewards of Eden, Old Testament scholar Dr. Sandra L. Richter explains that, in a patriarchal tribal society that had no unemployment benefits, SNAP, medicaid, or social security, the oldest male member of the family was responsible for the economic well-being of all of the extended family members who were under his care, and this included those “extended household members who became marginalized through poverty, death, or war” (Sandra L. Richter, Stewards of Eden: What Scripture Says About the Environment and Why It Matters, 69.) Not only that, but with no police force, foster-care system, public hospitalities, or orphanages, he was also responsible for looking out for and ensuring the safety, health and protection of all of those extended family members as well. 

Since the eldest brother would have assumed these responsibilities after the father passed away, it’s no wonder the eldest brother needed a double portion of the inheritance! Being the patriarch of the family was a lot of hard work.

A Double Portion of Elijah’s Spirit

Elisha, though not a biological son of Elijah, was sort of Eljah’s adopted son. In a very dramatic fashion (which you can read about in 1 Kings 19), Elisha had left his own father’s household to be trained under Elijah as his apprentice. 

Elisha’s mentor Elijah was a powerful prophet in Israel who not only performed amazing miracles such as raising a widow’s son back to life, calling down fire from the sky, and preventing the rain from falling for 3 1/2 years, but he even morso a prophet who spoke truth to power, calling the king and queen and all of the people to repent of their idolatry, and return to the worship of the one true God. 

Not only that, but Elijah was also the overseer and mentor to several schools of prophets, as we read about here in 2 Kings 2. 

And so when Elisha asks if he can inherit a double portion of Elijah’s spirit when Elijah leaves and goes up to heaven, Elisha was, knowingly or not, asking not only for great power, but for the even greater responsibility that came along with that, in stepping into the role of lead prophet of Israel, overseeing the various schools of prophecy, and continuing the trend of speaking truth to power and calling his country and its leaders to repentance. 

This is why Elijah said that Elisha had “asked a hard thing” in 2 Kings chapter 10. Not because it was a difficult request to grant, but rather it was a difficult responsibility to bear. But Elisha’s request was indeed granted, and he did in fact become Elijah’s successor and function in the role of lead prophet for the rest of his life. 

Living the Spirit Life

Our worship series these past several weeks following Pentecost has been entitled “Living the Spirit Life.” We’re reminded of when Jesus was getting ready to leave this earth, and how he promised to give his Holy Spirit to each and every one of his followers, to teach us and instruct us and lead us in the way of truth. 

We’re reminded too of that first Pentecost Sunday, when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the early Church. And we’re reminded that the Holy Spirit is continually poured out on the Church to this day, continuing to empower us to serve God and others.

As followers of Christ who have been adopted into the family of God, each of us have been given an inheritance – a gift of the Spirit to use for the building up of the Church. 

We learn throughout the New Testament that the Holy Spirit gives these gifts to every member of the Church – no one is excluded, and that these gifts are given to us to empower us to serve God and others. 

For some that gift might be teaching, or preaching, or encouraging, or serving, for others healing, or words of wisdom. Some of these gifts may not seem as miraculous as others – teaching may not seem as supernatural as healing – but each and every one of these gifts are indeed given by God. And with these each and every one of these gifts comes not only great power, but also great responsibility. And as such we need to stewards these gifts well, to make sure we are using them in the way they were intended to be used.

The Fruit of the Spirit

Perhaps this is why in Galatians chapter 5 the Apostle Paul talks about the “fruit of the Spirit.” Because it matters not just that we have gift, or roles, or responsibilities, but it matters how we use the gifts with which we’ve been entrusted. 

Because there are a lot of ways in which power – even spiritual power – can be and is often abused. And so here in Galatians, the Apostle Paul tells us what the result – the fruit – of the Spirit should look like in our lives. No matter what gifts or roles or responsibilities we have been given, the result should be love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

If we are leveraging our gifts, or our roles, or our responsibilities in any other way than these, then we are working against God’s plans and purposes in the world, rather than for and with.

This is how we know the Spirit is at work within us. Not because we can do miraculous signs and wonders – there are few who can do that, and even fewer who can do that well. But each of us as believers, as we open ourselves up to the Spirit of God to work in our lives, we can each grow more loving, more patient and gentle and kind, more generous, and more faithful, and use our gifts in ways that further advance God’s kingdom of peace, love, and joy.

This is why the Apostle Paul goes on to say, “There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:23-25).

So let us indeed live by the Spirit. Let us be guided by the Spirit. Let us desperately long for and yearn for a double portion of God’s Spirit. Not for power or prestige that it will bring, but so that we might see God work in mighty ways in our church and community to produce the kind of loving, joyful, and peace-filled world that we long to see.

And so let us remember that the power that we have as Children of God who have inherited God’s Holy Spirit comes with great responsibility. And let us ask God to make us more loving, more joyful, more peace-filled people, who are more patient, and kind, generous, faithful, gentle and guided by self-control so that we can steward the power that we have been given in a world that is so desperately in need of God’s healing and restoration.

Amen.

From Madness to Stillness

June 19th, 2022 homily on Luke 8:26-39 by Pastor Galen

Entropy

Recently I started a new day job as the director of Admissions and Communications at a local seminary. When I began, my department had been without a Director of Admissions for several months and had been struggling to keep up communications with new and potential applicants. Prior to that, the department had scrambled to transfer all of their files and records online so that staff could access records remotely during the pandemic. But then a week or so after I started, our internet and email systems were taken down for a period of several weeks for security reasons. 

So needless to say, my first few months in my new position involved a lot of sorting through paper and digital files that were housed in a variety of places, first to find the information I needed, and hopefully going forward to streamline the system and bring everything together into one place.

Many of us probably spend a rather significant portion of our time trying to bring order to chaos. Whether it’s powering through all the dirty dishes that are piling up in the kitchen sink, folding piles of laundry, trying to catch up on emails, fixing things that are broken, managing projects, or figuring out better and more streamlined ways of doing things, our lives are in some ways a constant struggle against the disorder that seems to be the default of the world in which we live. 

The scientific concept that is most commonly associated with disorder, is ‘entropy.’ And we know, according to the second law of thermodynamics, that over time, “the net entropy (degree of disorder) of any isolated or closed system will always increase (or at least stay the same).” In other words, if a situation is chaotic, it’s never going to get better – in fact, it’s probably going to get worse – unless we work proactively to bring order to the chaos.

Legion

And so it was with the situation that Jesus encountered in the country of the Gerasenes. When Jesus arrived in Gerasa, he was met by a man who was possessed by unclean spirits. In fact, this man was called “legion” because of the many demons who were tormenting him. (A Roman legion in those days was an army unit consisting of 4,000 – 6,000 soldiers. That’s a lot of demons!)

This man’s afflictions were so intense that he brought chaos wherever he went. He was incapable of living a “normal” life – wearing clothes and living in a house. Instead he ran around naked and lived in a graveyard. The people of the village had tried to contain the chaos by binding the man with chains and shackles and setting guards to watch over him, but he would continually escape. No matter how hard they tried things only got worse.

Jesus Calms the Storm

This was not the first time Jesus had encountered a chaotic situation. In fact, in the verses immediately prior to this passage, Jesus and his disciples were caught in a severe wind storm while they were sailing across the Sea of Galilee. The boat was engulfed with water, and the disciples were terrified that they might drown. In that situation, Jesus had rebuked the wind and the raging waters, and they immediately subsided, and afterwards all was calm.

The situation with Legion was no doubt similarly terrifying to the people of Gerasa. I imagine the people or Gerasa lived in constant fear that Legion might one day attack them. But just as Jesus rebuked the storm and brought peace, so too Jesus spoke directly to the demons, commanding them to come out of the man. After the demons had left the man, the townspeople came and found the man “clothed and in his right mind.” Again, Jesus brought order to the chaos, peace in the midst of the storm. 

Order to Chaos

As I reflect on this scenario, I’m reminded of the account of creation in Genesis chapter 1, where the author tells us that “when God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was complete chaos, and darkness covered the face of the deep.” (Gen. 1:1a). 

In the verses to follow, God systematically brought order to the chaos, first commanding that there be light, then separating the light from the darkness to create day and night, then separating out the waters on the earth from the waters in the sky, and then the water from the dry land, creating oceans and continents. God then proceeded to create the sun and moon and stars, the plants and trees, the birds of the air and fish of the sea, and then land animals and eventually people. And last but not least, God created the Sabbath, a day of rest – further bringing peace to what might otherwise feel like chaos. Jesus’s actions of calming the storm and freeing this man from demonic oppression, then, is in line with God’s work of creation –  bringing peace where there was once turmoil, order where there was once chaos.

Pigs?

We might wonder though, what about all of the pigs? Why did so many animals have to be harmed in the making of this story? I don’t know if we have any pig lovers here, but I know we have many people in our congregation who care deeply about animals and who may struggle with this part of the passage.

One possible explanation, which some have pointed out, is that Jesus did this in order to demonstrate to the man just how much God loved him – that his life was worth more than a whole herd of pigs. (Sort of a Gentile version of the lost sheep – where the shepherd left behind the 99 sheep to search for and find the one little lost lamb who was missing).

But if that were the point here, then I think Jesus would have done that as his first action, rather than as a response to the demons’ request. In addition, what does that explanation say about all of the townspeople whose pigs were drowned in the process? Pigs were valuable property in those days, and the whole town’s economy was most likely wrapped up in that herd of pigs. Did Jesus not care about all of them?

But rather, I wonder if Jesus allowed the demons to enter the herd of swine in response to the demon’s request as a tangible demonstration to the man and indeed the whole village of the awful power of evil left unchecked. The townspeople might have otherwise wrongly assumed that there had merely been something wrong with legion as a person – that his problems had merely been intrinsic or internal to him. But seeing that whole herd of pigs rush headfirst down the steep embankment and drown in the lake underscored the stark reality of the existence of evil forces in our world. Evil has a sort of entropy of its own – continuing to grow stronger if left unchecked, unless we are proactive about dealing with the roots of evil and injustice in our own lives and communities.

Ultimately, this is why Jesus came. Not to just help us deal with the problems that we face in this world, but to deal with the root of evil and injustice. It’s noticeable that Jesus didn’t invent a stronger rope or chain that could keep this guy locked up in order to prevent him from terrorizing the community. Rather he freed the man from oppression. 

Ultimately Jesus dealt a final blow to the powers of evil and injustice in our world through his death and resurrection on the cross. Through dying and rising again, Jesus was victorious over sin and death, demonstrating that goodness is stronger than evil, that God is more powerful than all of the forces of wickedness in this world, and that through Christ we too can be victorious. And with God’s help we too can bring order where there is chaos, freedom where there is oppression, and peace where there is turmoil.

Mass Incarceration

Today is Juneteenth, which is now a federal holiday in the United States commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. Juneteenth marks the anniversary of the announcement by Union Army general Gordon Granger on June 19, 1865, proclaiming freedom for enslaved people in Texas.

But even as we celebrate the freedom that was granted to formerly enslaved people in our country, we are reminded that even today, not all people in our world or even in our society are truly free. Beth Luthye reminded us the other week of the presence and reality of human trafficking today – around the world, but even here in our city. And we are reminded that in so many ways and in so many forms there are still many people in our world today who are not granted equal freedom, or given equal access to resources. There are many ways in which chaos and confusion and injustice and oppression seem to go unchecked. 

We know that evil left unchecked will only continue to grow stronger, and so our society tries to enforce legislation. Like the people of Legion’s day, we lock up people we are afraid of, rather than trying to deal with the root causes of the affilictions they face.

We see this in our prison system, where 37% percent of people in our state and federal prisons and 44% of people in locally-run jails have been diagnosed with a mental illness, while only 34% of people in federal prisons reported receiving any mental health care while incarcerated. On top of that, incarceration itself has been shown to cause “post-traumatic stress, anxiety, impaired decision-making, and more.” One expert observed that “The prison environment is almost diabolically conceived to force the offender to experience the pangs of what many psychiatrists would describe as mental illness.” And yet we continue to lock people up as a primary strategy for dealing with the problems in our society. 

“The United States has the largest prison population in the world, and the highest per-capita incarceration rate. One out of every 5 people imprisoned across the world is incarcerated in the United States.” And yet it hasn’t made us safer, with many in our society living in a constant state of fear of violence – whether walking down the street, or in churches, or schools or movie theaters. 

We lament the presence of evil and injustice in our world, and we believe that evil left unchecked will only strengthen and grow worse. But as a Church, we believe that “A justice system that reflects God’s desires for the world is one that is healing and restorative.” This is why the Social Principles of the United Methodist church state that “In the love of Christ, who came to save those who are lost and vulnerable, we urge the creation of a genuinely new system for the care and restoration of victims, offenders, criminal justice officials, and the community as a whole.” Our UMC Book of Resluations “calls on government and society to ‘stop criminalizing communities of color in the United States’ by dismantling unjust, racist policies and practices, including racial profiling, mass incarceration and communal disenfranchisement.”

Loosing the Chains of Injustice

And so what do we do with all of this? I know that the problems facing our society can feel overwhelming, and it can be difficult to know how we can truly bring peace in the midst of what often feels like a chaotic situation. But I believe that, in large ways and in small ways, we can and should look for opportunities to participate in God’s ongoing work to bring about peace and wholeness and restoration in our world. Whether it’s doing the dishes, or folding laundry, or organizing files at work, advocating for a justice system that is truly restorative, working to bring an end to human trafficking or to interrupt the school to prison pipeline, I believe that each and every one of these tasks can be holy, as we participate in bringing peace and wholeness to ourselves and those around us. 

When we think about the larger issues facing our society, the good news is that we do not have to do all of this on our own. That’s why we have the Church, and that’s why we have the power of the Holy Spirit living inside of us. 

So let us follow in the way of Jesus, and let us be people who participate in God’s work of bringing peace in the midst of chaos. Let us pray and work for an end to violence and injustice, and let us continue to pray and work until all are truly free.

Amen.

Does Not Wisdom Call?

June 12th, 2022 (Children’s Sunday) homily on Proverbs 8:1-4, John 16:12-15 by Pastor Galen

Wisdom vs. Knowledge

How many of you graduated this year, or moved up to another grade in school? Whether you graduated from Kindergarten, or are moving up to middle school, or high school, or graduated from high school, college, or grad school, that is a cause for celebration! You worked hard, and you are to be congratulated for your hard work and a job well done. 

But let me ask you a question. Now that you’ve completed this phase of your education, does that mean that you know everything there is to know? Have you learned every single thing that there is to know about the world?

Of course not! I just graduated from seminary – which is where people go to learn how to be pastors. But that doesn’t mean that I know every single thing that there is to know about being a pastor! And you probably didn’t learn every single thing there is to know about math, or science, or reading – no matter what grade level you completed. 

Rather, school is often about learning how to learn – learning where to go or who to ask in order to find the information you want or need to know. Education should also be about learning to love learning. That doesn’t mean you have to love every subject in school, but most likely as you’re studying your various subjects in school you may find yourself drawn to one subject more than the others – and that’s great! Because often your favorite subject becomes one that you love learning about, and so you spend more time doing that, and you get really good at it, and it might even become the thing you decide to do for a job or career!

The point is that school is more than just about learning all the right things. It’s about learning how to learn – learning where to go to find the information you need. And hopefully learning how to recognize when the information you find is not true or accurate. 

Does Not Wisdom Call

In Proverbs 8:1-4, the Bible says, “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?” 

What is wisdom? Wisdom is more than knowing information. It’s knowing the right thing to do with the information you have in whatever circumstance you find yourself in. 

Let’s say, for example, that I were to give you $20. What could you do with $20?

  • You could buy something – perhaps download a new app or game. 
  • You could save it for when you really need it.
  • You could give it away to someone who needs it more than you. 
  • You could give it to the church. 
  • You could put it in the bank and save it for college. 

All of these answers are correct – in the sense that each of these answers are things that you could in fact do with $20. But what’s the right thing for you to do with that money? The answer is that it depends on the situation. And that’s where we need wisdom. 

Wisdom involves having knowledge. You can’t know the right thing to do if you don’t have all of the information. But information by itself will not necessarily help you know the right or wrong thing to do – that’s where wisdom comes in. 

How does one get wisdom?

So how can we gain wisdom?

  1. Well, wisdom often comes from experience. We try something and it doesn’t work, and so we try something else, and eventually we figure out what’s best. That’s why it’s often said that wisdom comes with age – because the older you get, the more of life you experience. And hopefully we learn from those experiences. 
  1. We can also learn from the wisdom of others who have had those experiences. You don’t necessarily have to experience everything yourself. You can learn from others who have tried and made mistakes, or had success doing something. For example, I’ve never tried jumping into the Baltimore inner harbor, but I know it’s a bad idea because I have a friend who did that, and she got hurt pretty badly, and then got an infection because the water in the harbor is so polluted. And so, ever since that happened to her, I have never been tempted to jump into the inner harbor. I don’t need to experience it to know that it’s a bad idea. I learned from the experience of my friend. 

Because wisdom often comes from experience, it’s important that we remember to look not just to our friends for ideas or suggestions when we are facing a decision, but also to people who are older than us and have a lot more life experience. You might think that your parents, grandparents, and teachers can’t relate to what you’re going through because they’re older than you, but most likely they experienced the same things you’re going through when they were your age. So it’s always a good idea to ask them for input and guidance as well!

  1. We can gain wisdom by praying, and listening to God, and reading God’s Word. In the Bible, there’s a story about a King by the name of Solomon, and he asked God for wisdom, and God granted his request, and he became known all throughout the world for his wisdom.

In the book of Proverbs, Wisdom is personified as a woman – meaning that the author imagines what it would be like if wisdom were a person. And the author says, 

Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live. The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.”

This passage says that Wisdom is crying out to us – like a woman in a marketplace selling baskets, or bread. In other words, God wants to give us wisdom! If we pray for wisdom, we don’t have to wonder or worry about whether God will answer our request. Wisdom is calling out to us!

Similarly, in the New Testament, when Jesus was getting ready to leave the earth, he said, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13).

So God has promised that if we ask for wisdom, God will give us wisdom. 

A Time When I Needed Wisdom

I want to close by sharing about a time when I needed wisdom in my own life. When I was in about 4th or 5th grade, there was a girl in my class by the name of Melissa who was mean to a lot of the kids in the class, including me. She was rivals with another girl in the class named Ashley, and she would go around asking the other kids if they were on her side, or on Ashley’s side. And if anyone said they were on Ashley’s side, she would be mean to them until they agreed to be on her side. 

I really didn’t want to get involved, so I said I wasn’t on either side, but that didn’t make Melissa very happy, and she kept bothering me and pestering me to tell her that I was on her side. (Of course I knew that if I said I was on her side then she would go and immediately tell Ashley that I was on Melissa’s side, which would have hurt my friendship with Ashley).

I tried ignoring Melissa but that didn’t seem to work, because it always seemed like the teachers assigned us to sit next to each other in class. Plus, we lived just a few blocks away from each other, rode the same school bus to school, and my parents were friends with her dad.

I didn’t want to tell my parents or teachers – maybe I was afraid they thought I was being silly because I couldn’t handle this situation on my own. But eventually they figured it out, when one day I came home with pinches and scratch marks on my arm from where Melissa had scratched me as a way of trying to force me to be on her side.

After my parents found out what happened, they alerted the teacher, and eventually the situation got resolved. 

I learned a lot from that experience. I learned that situations don’t get resolved by simply ignoring them. I learned that it’s always best to tell a trusted adult when you feel unsafe or in danger. And I learned that the teachers and parents and those who are tasked with taking care of us can’t help us if they don’t know that something is wrong. 

Throughout that difficult experience, I felt God’s presence and direction. I felt God telling me not to try to get even with Melissa, or to hit or back, but rather to tell a trusted adult what was going on in my life. 

Wisdom is Calling

And that wasn’t the only time I needed guidance and direction from God, or to look to the wisdom of those older and wiser than me. All throughout my life, I’ve found it helpful to have someone older than me, with more life experience, who can help point me to God and help me decide the right thing to do. Teachers, mentors, professors, older friends and relatives, denominational leaders – we never outgrow the need to have other people in our lives who can help us determine the right thing to do, or the right decision to make. 

As we get older, we’ll also learn more how to discern God’s voice for ourselves and draw from our previous mistakes and victories. 

So let us seek wisdom. Indeed, let us hear that wisdom is calling out to us, that God wants to give us wisdom! Even as we continue to learn and grow and develop, let us remember that knowledge and information in and of themselves are not enough. We need wisdom. Let us pray, and ask that God would help us to grow in knowledge and in wisdom throughout our whole lives. 

Amen.

Thoughts and Prayers?

May 29th, 2022 homily on Acts 16:16-34 by Pastor Galen

Are Thoughts and Prayers Enough?

This week has been an incredibly difficult week for school students, parents and teachers, and anyone else in our society who cares deeply about children. The horrific mass shooting that took place at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas earlier this week is one of a long line of mass shootings. 214 mass shootings in the US this year alone, and 27 school shootings with injuries or deaths this year.

Our hearts broke as we heard the news of the children and teachers who were killed, as well as those who were injured. Our hearts grieve for those who lost loved one.

For me, the tragedy felt very close to home when the following day we received news that our own children’s school was put on lockdown due to a threat of violence that my kids’ school received the day after the shooting in Texas. Children had to hide in bathrooms and closets, some children even sending goodbye texts to their parents. Fortunately the threat was not carried out.

When it comes to tragedies like the one that took place at Robb Elementary, it’s difficult for us to know how to respond appropriately. The massacre in Texas has of course resurfaced debates in our society about gun control, with pro gun lobbyists proclaiming that guns are not the problem. The problem, they say, is with people, and they argue that we actually need more “good” people with guns if we’re going to stop by the “bad” guys. Those on the other side proclaim that there should be at least as many regulations for gun owners as we have for people who drive cars, and that if we really loved our children more than we love our guns then we would do everything within our power to try to prevent the type of violence that we saw earlier this week.

The tragedy has also resurfaced a debate – at least on my Facebook news thread – of the role of “thoughts and prayers” when it comes to a massacre such as this. Many of my Facebook friends stated emphatically that when it comes to school shootings, thoughts and prayers are simply not enough – that action must be taken, that we must change the laws in our society. While on the other hand, I saw someone else say, “sometimes ALL we can do is pray for a situation, or person!!” She went on to say, “You may not believe in the power of prayer and that’s ok. I believe in it!”

Now, as a person of faith, I do believe that prayer can change things, that God hear our prayers, and that something in the universe is affected when we pray. And yet I believe that the questions people are asking in our society are valid, and that we need to wrestle with the question “Are thoughts and prayers enough? Or is there more we should be doing?”

Paul and Silas in Jail

In Acts chapter 16, Paul and Silas were in prison. And somehow, in the midst of the terrible circumstances that they found themselves in, they began to sing and pray to the Lord.

Now in that particular situation, there was not much else that they could do besides sing and pray. Their hands were literally tied! They were in shackles and chains. They could not advocate for an end to mass incarceration, they could not change the unjust laws in their society that had led to their imprisonment. And so they did the one thing they could do, which was to cry out to God in prayer, and to sing hymns of praise to God.

Now, because the book of Psalms was essentially the Jewish hymnal of the day, most likely Paul and Silas were singing a Psalm. Perhaps they sang Psalm 27 like we read earlier. I can just imagine them, shackled, and chained in a dirty, smelly jail cell. They had just been attacked by a crowd of people, stripped of their clothes and beaten with rods. And now they were in an innermost cell, their feet fastened in the stocks, rats and mice and insects crawling all around them. People sick and diseased. On a human level there was literally nothing they could do to get out or to change the unjust system in which they found themselves.

 And so, they began to sing:

“The Lord is my light and my salvation;

    whom shall I fear?” – Psalm 27:1

Now, to many people, praying and singing when you’re in jail might sound about as futile as sending the family of victims thoughts and prayers. And in truth, often we do not see the results of our prayers. But in this particular instance, when Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns in the prison, all of a sudden, right in the midst of their praying and singing, there was a tremendous earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken, and the doors of the prison came open, and all of the prisoner’s chains were unfastened. 

The nature and timing of this earthquake was such that this could not have been a coincidence. It truly was an act of God, in direct answer to their prayers. Can you imagine? An earthquake that opened all the doors of the prison, and even broke the shackles off their feet, yet did not destroy the building itself!? It truly was an answer to their prayers.

And so, on the one hand, this story is a powerful testimony to the reality that prayer is in fact powerful. That God can and does sometimes answer our prayers in miraculous ways. The story of Paul and Silas singing and praying in the innermost part of the prison and being set free by the power of God is a reminder that even when we are in a situation where it seems that there is no way out, and there is nothing else we can do, when our hands are tied – literally or figuratively, we can still pray. Prayer is a powerful force that can bring about change in the world, because the God to whom we pray is powerful. 

When Prayer is Not Enough

But on the other hand, there are times when we have the opportunity to do more – when we can both pray, and take action. And in those situations, we don’t stop praying. We start and end in prayer, and all throughout we pray. But we don’t let it stop there. Because, as it has been said frequently over this past week in particular, “There is something deeply hypocritical about praying for a problem you are unwilling to resolve.” 

In the book of Isaiah, chapter 58 we see a stark prophetic rebuke of people and nations who engage in spiritual and religious activities, but fail to work for justice. 

In this particularly passage the prophet calls out the hypocrisy of those who were fasting – which was a type of prayer that involved going without food for periods of time. And here’s what the Lord said through the prophet Isaiah:

“Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the descendants of Jacob their sins. For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.” – Isaiah 58:1-5

We cannot fast, or send up thoughts and prayers, or engage in other religious activities, and expect God to hear and respond to our prayers, if we are unwilling to repent and change the actions we are doing that contribute to the problems we are praying about!

As individuals, and as a church, and as a society, we must do our part to change, and change whatever we can, if we expect God to hear and answer our prayers.

And so we don’t stop praying, because prayer is powerful and can effect change as we see in the Paul and Silas. But in addition to prayer, we also vote, and march, and advocate, and condemn, and testify, and confess, and write, and question, and demand, and comfort, and defend, and call out, and resist, and build, and remember, and commit. As we have the opportunity, we change unjust laws and policies. and we change how money is spent and where it’s allocated. We elevate and make space for those who have not been given the opportunity to let their voices be heard. And so yes we pray, but we also work, and act, and then we pray some more. Because prayer is a powerful force for change, but God will not hear our prayers if we refuse to do our part when given the opportunity.

The good news, according to the prophet Isaiah, is that when engage in the types of religious activities that include loosening the chains of injustice, and freeing those who are oppressed, then the prophet Isaiah tells us that “Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.”

Interestingly enough, the whole reason that Paul and Silas were imprisoned in the first place, and the reason they were attacked by the mob and beaten with rods and publicly humiliated, is that they had delivered a slave girl from demonic oppression who was held in captivity by slave owners who were using her abilities for their own financial gain. So Paul and Silas had literally loosened the chains of injustice, and freed those who were oppressed. No wonder God heard and responded to their prayers!

So let us pray! Let us pray continuously, and may we never stop praying. But let us also act as we have the opportunity. May our prayers not be an excuse to not do our part. Yes, there are times when we are trapped and there is no way out, and prayer may be the only thing we can do in a particular situation. And in those situations we can take comfort in the fact that God hears the cries of the oppressed! But as we have the opportunity, may we act in accordance with the prayers that we pray. If and when we do that, then God will act, and perhaps even work in miraculous ways to bring freedom from oppression, and give us the peace that we so long to experience.

Amen.