Sunday, August 23, 2015

Free-Range God

1 Kings 8
The priests then brought the ark of the Lord’s covenant to its place in the inner sanctuary of the temple, the Most Holy Place, and put it beneath the wings of the cherubim. The cherubim spread their wings over the place of the ark and overshadowed the ark and its carrying poles.  These poles were so long that their ends could be seen from the Holy Place in front of the inner sanctuary, but not from outside the Holy Place; and they are still there today.  There was nothing in the ark except the two stone tablets that Moses had placed in it at Horeb, where the Lord made a covenant with the Israelites after they came out of Egypt.

 When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple.

 Then Solomon said, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in a dark cloud;  I have indeed built a magnificent temple for you, a place for you to dwell forever.”…

27 “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! 28 Yet give attention to your servant’s prayer and his plea for mercy, Lord my God. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence this day.

41 “As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name— 42 for they will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm—when they come and pray toward this temple, 43 then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name.

John 4: 19-26
“Sir,” [a Samaritan woman said to Jesus], “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”

About 10 years ago my family and I decided to get chickens. To get ready we cleaned out the kids’ old wooden playhouse. We put in perches and nesting boxes, lined openings with chicken wire and built a large fenced in area. I’d seen some of those chicken coops that you could buy but they seemed so small. I wanted to have happy chickens. But there was so much I did not know. Like to get hens and not roosters.

All of the chickens in the first group were Rhode Island Reds except one. Rocky was a black and white striped Barred Plymouth Rock and he was as big and bad as a rooster could be.

I didn’t realize that a dozen chickens would make short work of a 25 x 25 piece of grass. So, I did some reading on the Internet and discovered that if I let the chickens out, they would automatically go back into the coop at night. HA! Don’t believe every thing you read on the Internet. I have memories of chasing hens through the yard and gathering sleeping chickens out of trees in order to put them to bed in the coop.

But, I liked the idea of free-range chickens, chickens who could do what chickens were intended to do. I liked to watch them cluck and scratch in the yard. Instead of watching TV, we would sit on the swing outside and watch the chickens.

But there was one problem with idyllic scene. Rocky. He was the patriarch and he was MEAN. If you
walked too close to him or his hens, he would run to attack you with his sharp claws and beak. It got to the point where if we went outside, we would take what we called a “chicken-be-good stick” for protection--a golf club or a branch the size of a walking stick. It was ridiculous really, to be terrorized in our own yard by a rooster.

I know if you are a real farmer you are thinking that I’m a fool. Rocky should have been in the stew pot as soon as he had enough meat on him. But nobody in my family could “eliminate” him. We’d rather put up with a crazy and unmanageable chicken than get rid of him all together.

Truth be told, though, Rocky was just doing his job. He was single-minded in his devotion to his brood.   Despite Rocky’s unpredictability, I couldn’t keep the chickens contained in that little house. I let them roam as free-range chickens.
While he was alive, we lost very few hens to the foxes and raccoons.

Over time, Rocky and I learned how to behave with one another and came to an uneasy peace. But whenever I’d get too close, he’d come running with his head down and his feathers flying. Once Rocky died, we lost all of our hens one by one because he wasn't around to protect them. I never understood the mind of Rocky, but in a weird way I respected him and loved him. Rocky was, well, Rocky. He’s the only chicken whose name we remember. He’s a legend among chickens at our house.

In our Bible story today, Solomon is the new king of Israel. He has built, not a coop, but a glorious temple to God. It’s big and beautiful, using the best materials available. Our scripture reading comes from the dedication of the temple.  The event was like many dedication events today. All the important people in the community were there. There were long speeches and polite applause. There was Solomon’s long, long prayer, parts of which we have with us today.

At the temple dedication, they brought in the Ark of the Covenant to its place in the inner sanctuary. When the ark was put into the temple, the glory of the LORD filled the temple as a cloud. Solomon talks to God saying, I have built a magnificent temple for you a place for you to dwell forever.

Now many of you may remember the King Solomon is known for his wisdom. He is a smart and spiritual man. He’s credited with writing the book of Proverbs and the Song of Solomon (or the Song of Songs, depending on your translation).

Solomon is smart enough to know that even though he built a magnificent temple for God, that temple could never contain God. He couldn't keep the God of the universe cooped up. Solomon knew that God is a free-range God. 

Solomon knew that a house, a temple or a church couldn’t contain God because eGod is free to walk about creation and do whatever it is God chooses to do. God is free-range God. 

Solomon understood that he didn't know the mind of God.  Our mortal brains cannot figure out God or contain God. God tells us through the prophet Isaiah:

My thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
 “As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Our ideas about God are limited. Our interpretation of scripture is limited. Our theology about God is limited. God can’t be contained by the human mind because God is a free-range God.

Finally, our hearts are not big enough to contain God. Many of us have had spiritual experiences that completely overwhelm us. Experiences where God feels so big and powerful that our hearts cannot even begin to understand what is happening. Times like when when we have been so grateful that it feels like our heart will burst. Times when we've felt such forgiveness that it brings tears. Times when we pray so fervently that we are sure God will hear and respond.

But the desires of our hearts don’t limit what God can do. God doesn’t act a certain way because it feels right to us. God cannot be contained by our human hearts because God is a free-range God.

And this presents a conundrum for us, because there is always more to God than we can ever think and feel.

You may come into this sanctuary believing that God is good all the time. You may think that God is going to reconcile the whole world one day. You may believe that God’s plan is to bring together the good, the bad and the ugly into a beautiful new creation and that hell will cease to exist because the God of love wins. You may believe that eventually every knee will bow and every tongue will confess to Jesus in gratitude. There is plenty in the good book to lead you to believe that. 

But, remember, God is a free-range God.

You may come into this sanctuary believing God’s goodness means that justice is done and that this justice sometimes requires punishment and restitution. You may think that there is a dividing line between the people who are going to heaven and those who are going to hell. You may believe that people who don’t proclaim Jesus as LORD or say the sinners prayer or get baptized before they die, will miss out on the joy of heaven and instead be mired in the eternal torment of hell. There is plenty in the good book to lead you to believe this.

But, remember, God is a free-range God. God is sovereign and not bound by our buildings, ideas and desires.

God is always free to break out of the box that we try to put him in. The cloud of God’s glory leaves the temple that Solomon built.

The glory of God breaks out of heaven and comes to earth as Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ breaks through barriers that keep people apart.

A free-range God can be a frightening thing because God will break out of whatever box we try to put Him in and, this is the hard part, challenge you to love Him anyway.

God will break out of whatever box we try to put her in and, this is the hardest part, challenge you to love Her anyway.

God will break out of whatever box we try to put God in and, this is the hardest part, challenge you to love God anyway.

God as Him is a box. God as Her is a box. God is not a him or a her. God is God. Separate, apart and unconstrained by our idea of who God should be. 

Can you embrace and love and respect a God that thinks differently from you? Can you believe in a God that sends people to hell? Can you believe in a God that doesn't? Can you have faith in a God who may choose not follow the rules of your religion?

This is Jesus’ problem. He doesn’t follow the religious rules of his time. He ministers to lepers, he eats with sinners, he proclaims his salvation to Samaritans. He says that being holy doesn’t mean being better than or set apart or special. He tells a women, an outcast, that the time is coming when it won’t matter if you’re called a Samaritain, a leper or a sinner. It will not matter where you go to worship.

People were so opposed to the ideal of a free-range God that they killed Jesus. No way did their God want lepers, Samaritans, tax collectors and sinners. They wanted to keep God in their box and chained by their rules.

But God did not let that happen. God didn't stay cooped up or confined. God broke out of the divine box and put on human skin as Jesus. God broke the box of religion and showed us how to truly live in faith. God broke the box of death and showed us eternal and abundant life.

God can’t be confined to a temple or a church or even a tomb. God is a free-range God who chooses to walk alongside us. God is a free-range God who chooses to forgive us. God is a free-range God who chooses to love us. God is a free-range God who challenges us to keep the faith even when the walls we build are falling down around us.

Because this is a God of good news. We can't control God, but we can trust God. In faith, we can trust that the God of the universe chooses to love us and forgive us through Christ. We can trust that the free-range God breaks out of boxes and buildings to do the things of God. We are called to follow this God out of the the box, out of the building and out of the tomb. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

One Life to Live


 When King David was very old, he could not keep warm even when they put covers over him. So his attendants said to him, “Let us look for a young virgin to serve the king and take care of him. She can lie beside him so that our lord the king may keep warm.”

Then they searched throughout Israel for a beautiful young woman and found Abishag, a Shunammite, and brought her to the king. The woman was very beautiful; she took care of the king and waited on him, but the king had no sexual relations with her. Now [one of David’s sons] Adonijah, whose mother was Haggith, put himself forward and said, “I will be king.”…

15 So Bathsheba went to see the aged king in his room, where Abishag the Shunammite was attending him. 16 Bathsheba bowed down, prostrating herself before the king.
“What is it you want?” the king asked.

17 She said to him, “My lord, you yourself swore to me your servant by the Lord your God: ‘Solomon your son shall be king after me, and he will sit on my throne.’ 18 But now Adonijah has become king, and you, my lord the king, do not know about it. 19 He has sacrificed great numbers of cattle, fattened calves, and sheep, and has invited all the king’s sons, Abiathar the priest and Joab the commander of the army, but he has not invited Solomon your servant. 20 My lord the king, the eyes of all Israel are on you, to learn from you who will sit on the throne of my lord the king after him. 21 Otherwise, as soon as my lord the king is laid to rest with his ancestors, I and my son Solomon will be treated as criminals…”

David Makes Solomon King
29 The king then took an oath: “As surely as the Lord lives, who has delivered me out of every trouble, 30 I will surely carry out this very day what I swore to you by the Lord, the God of Israel: Solomon your son shall be king after me, and he will sit on my throne in my place.”


8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!
    Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Our scene today is a soap opera classic. Our patriarch is on his deathbed and the people around him scheming to see who will get his money and power. Adonijah, the oldest son, declares himself king. 
But, while Adonijah has the confidence to be next king, it’s Bathsheba who has David's ear and affection. She’s heard that Adonijah has his eye on the throne and sets out to do something about it.

You may remember Bathsheba from the scriptures the last few weeks—the bathing beauty  whom David “takes” from another man and then has her husband killed after he discovers she’s pregnant. They lost that child but had another boy, Solomon, a year or so later.

This week we’ve fast forwarded the story, leaving out a lot of David’s royal drama. Today David is OLD.

He's so old can’t get out of bed. He's so old he can’t keep warm. He's so old he can't act like a king. His servants and elders have brought in a beautiful woman to serve and take care of him and hopefully rouse him to action. This woman is young and enticing as she flits around the royal bedroom, sometimes plumping pillows, sometimes feeding the king and other times crawling under the covers with him to keep him warm. But, David, one known for his sexual prowess, does not or cannot “take” her.

In walks Bathsheba. Bathsheba was once the beautiful, enticing young woman catching the king’s eye. But, she, too, has aged. She may have put on a few pounds living in the palace with all that rich food. Maybe she has some gray hair here and there.

She and David have been married long enough for Solomon to become a young man.  She has come to David to advocate for Solomon. She wants her son on the throne.

She takes stock of the old man in his bed. She bows down and prostrates herself before the impotent king and reminds him of his promise to her.  “You swore that my son Solomon would be king after you, but Adonijah is saying he has become king.”

David’s mind might struggle to recall that promise. Maybe I made it after the first baby died, he might think. Or maybe I made the promise when Solomon was a toddler after seeing how much joy he brought Bathsheba. He doesn’t specifically remember making that promise, but perhaps when he looks at her through the lens of his memory he could imagine promising her anything.

“You swore,” Bathsheba says looking directly at him, tugging at his conscience. “And if my son Solomon is not made king, both he and I may be killed once you are gone. You swore to me by the Lord your God …”


Except there is no place in the Bible that says David made such a promise. Bathsheba makes a bold play to get Solomon crowned king.

Now Bathsheba often gets a bad rap for scheming to get her son on the throne. But before we judge her too harshly, we have to remember what life was like for her. She was one of the king’s wives, and when the new king came along he would take David's wives and concubines. And yes, he would likely “take” them in that sexual sense of the word. The new king may also decide to kill any rivals to the throne. Bathsheba may have been scheming to protect both her dignity and her child.

“You promised,” Bathsheba says and David agrees. Maybe he’s been reflecting on his life and feels guilty for the underhanded way in which he acquired Bathsheba. Maybe he remembers that he was a younger son and he ended up as king. We don’t know why, but David rises to the occasion, gets up out of bed and goes out to publically declare Solomon king. Shortly thereafter he dies and Solomon takes the throne--and Solomon has his rival Adonijah put to death.

David’s life and his death are far from ordinary. If David had a newspaper in his time, I’m sure he would have had an impressive obituary. He had a fancy job title, lots of family left behind, many accomplishments worth listing. David is a notable and powerful man.  But he’s not the only one. Bathsheba has power, too.

The Bible shows us that how we use our power is one of the most important decisions we can make in life.

Let’s look at the three examples of the power people have from our scriptures today—two from the David and Bathsheba story and one from Jesus.  

First, there’s the blatant and overt power of the patriarch king.  In this hierarchy, the king makes things happen with a word. The king decides who lives and who dies. The king chooses which other tribes to fight and what land to take over. The king conscripts men for fighting and women for more personal services. The king orders builders to build and bakers to bake. The king has direct power over what he does and what other people do.

David used this kind of power to do great things for his people and his God. He made Israel into a nation instead of a rag tag collection of tribes. He conquered the city of Jerusalem and brought the ark of the covenant into the new capital city. He united the northern and southern kingdoms of Judah and Israel into one country. We should admire David for this.

But David found out that it was hard to keep this kind of power in check. He started using it, for the betterment of himself, not just the betterment of the country.  He stopped thinking about what impact his decisions might have on the people around him.  

We all have a David in our lives. Maybe not a king, but someone who has a lot of control over what we do with our time and energy. Luckily, there aren’t too many tyrants in most of our lives, with, perhaps, the exception of toddlers.

Think about parenting a two-year old. Such little bodies hold such incredible power--over our time, our energy and our frame of mind. We don’t always want to overpower our kids even though we can.  So we sometimes we resort to other techniques. After the fifth tantrum over the cookie jar—we just hide it in the cupboard rather than fight about it--again. We tease, cajole and manipulate to convince a child to eat broccoli rather than use force. But, this is our choice. We could choose to fight two-year old power with blatant parental power, but it's not healthy to do it all the time.

Bathsheba was not in a position to fight power with power. She can’t command David. She had to learn to live with his realm of power. So she’s using what she does have—her history and her emotional ties to David to get what she wants. She bows and cajoles and plays to his power. Bathsheba used subversive power.

I’m reminded of this scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding where the mother reminds her daughter that the man may be the head of the household, but the woman is the neck who can make the head turn any way she wants. 

 David has overt and hierarchal power and Bathsheba has subversive power.

And then we have Jesus. Jesus is his own kind of power.

Our New Testament reading is usually heard on Palm Sunday. The crowds are so excited to see Jesus coming into town. They wave palms, and hail the son of David. They are convinced that the messiah has come-- a messiah, an anointed one, like David. They want a new king to put them on top in the hierarchy of power, to make them the bosses again, to make Israel great by defeating the Romans. They are filled with patriotic fervor and are expecting a brilliant political mastermind and a charismatic warrior-leader.

But they get something totally different.  They get a servant-leader.  

They get someone who uses his power completely differently. This is so important for us to remember as Christians. The people cheering Jesus wanted a David, but they get someone more like Bathsheba. Someone who doesn’t take on Rome head on but chooses to use another kind of power.

Jesus could have defeated Rome. Jesus had the power of God in his hands and could have done anything in this world. He could have raised armies and raised the dead. He could have commanded the sea to flood or dry up or turn into wine. Jesus had people lining the streets for a revolution. Jesus had people who were ready to fight and die for their nation under his leadership. 

But the crowd soon found out Jesus wasn’t a new David. There are some big differences between David and Jesus.

David commanded people.    
Jesus invited them.

David took the things he wanted.    
Jesus gave them up.

David lived in a palace.    
Jesus was homeless.

David feasted with leaders.    
Jesus broke bread with sinners.

David put himself first.    
Jesus put people first.

David executed the people who opposed him.   
Jesus died on a cross, executed by the people he loved.

We are all a little  like David, to some degree. We all want things in life to go our way.  We want to make choices for ourselves. We want to be independent like David, We want to kings and queens, even if it’s just in our own homes.

But, we aren’t called to be like David. We are all called to be like Jesus.

How many of us would say we are powerful on the world stage? Anybody here a national politician? A billionaire philanthropist? Nobel prize winner? Nobody?  

Those of us here don’t run big companies or make laws. Even so, Jesus shows us that we have power. What we choose to do in our everyday lives matters. What we do at home matters. Think of Jesus' ministry. He says in words and action: 
  •  How we treat our neighbor matters in the kingdom of God. Jesus says we are to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. 
  • Who we eat with matters in the kingdom of God. Jesus ate with sinners and prostitutes. Jesus fed the hungry. 
  • What we do with our money and stuff matters in the kingdom of God. Jesus tells people not to save up for another day but sell what they have to care for the poor. 
  • How we pray matters in the kingdom of God. Jesus tells us not just to pray for people we like but to pray for those who persecute us.

Each of us only has one life to live. We should live it like it matters to the world, because it does. We have the power to choose love or hate, bitterness or forgiveness, violence or peace. We can heal or we can hurt.

Jesus Christ shows us that the world is changed one interaction at a time, not by a great political mind, a brilliant war strategist or a show of blatant power. The kingdom of God is defined differently-- by a healing touch, an assurance of forgiveness or a shared scrap of bread.

Jesus shows us how to live in God's kingdom. It’s not like royalty, but like an ordinary, loving person. He shows us how to act toward God, our neighbors, our friends and our enemies.  

Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, shows us the way to eternal and abundant life isn’t achieved by gaining power, but by sharing it with those around us. In Christ, God gave up power to become flesh and dwell among us. In that one lived life, the world was changed forever. Thanks be to God.