The Sting of Death

or much of 2016-2017, God’s people in Crafton Heights are walking through the story of David, the shepherd boy who grew up to be Israel’s greatest king.  On February 12, we sat with him as he lamented the deaths of Saul and Jonathan singing “The Song of the Bow” as found in II Samuel 1 (included below).   Our worship was further informed by a portion Paul’s note to his friends as found in II Corinthians 4:7-12

 

When we left off last week, Achish and his Philistine army were preparing to attack the Israelites and King Saul, while David and his men had been sent home to their place in Philistia, Ziklag. You might remember that David and his militia discover that the place had been ransacked and all of their relatives kidnapped, and David cried out for help from God. I Samuel ends with an account of David’s pursuit of the Amalekite raiders and the story of how families were reunited and David’s reputation was continuing to increase.

The Battle of Gilboa from The Winchester Bible, 12th c. illustrated manuscript in Winchester, England.

The Battle of Gilboa from The Winchester Bible, 12th c. illustrated manuscript in Winchester, England.

There is, however, a dramatic development recorded at both the end of I Samuel and the beginning of II Samuel: we learn the outcome of the battle between the Philistines and the Israelites. A young man shows up in Ziklag carrying the crown and the royal bracelet: proof that King Saul of Israel is dead. This messenger is eager to demonstrate his loyalty to David, and even goes so far as to say that when he first encountered Saul, the king had been gravely wounded, but was still alive; at the king’s request, the young man ended Saul’s life.

When he first hears the news, David is overcome with grief and emotion. He weeps and fasts, as do the other members in his community.

The next day, he calls the messenger and asks for the story to be repeated. After the young man runs through it, David has him executed.

This is the same David who chose not to kill Saul when he had the chance, even though for years Saul had been trying to kill him… the same David who chose not to kill Nabal, even when Nabal had treated him with contempt. David has shown restraint… until someone dares to raise a hand to the Lord’s anointed. Now he orders the execution of this man who celebrates the death of the one who God had called.

And then, David sings. The song that he writes and performs is called “The Song of the Bow”, and it is a public statement of grief on the occasion of the deaths of Saul and his son, Jonathan. Not only does David compose and sing this tune, he also commands that the entire nation learn it. Listen to “The Song of the Bow” as found in II Samuel 1:17-27:

David took up this lament concerning Saul and his son Jonathan, and he ordered that the people of Judah be taught this lament of the bow (it is written in the Book of Jashar):

“A gazelle lies slain on your heights, Israel.

How the mighty have fallen!

“Tell it not in Gath,

proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon,

"The Song of the Bow", Marc Chagall (1967).

“The Song of the Bow”, Marc Chagall (1967).

lest the daughters of the Philistines be glad,

lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice.

“Mountains of Gilboa,

may you have neither dew nor rain,

may no showers fall on your terraced fields.

For there the shield of the mighty was despised,

the shield of Saul—no longer rubbed with oil.

“From the blood of the slain,

from the flesh of the mighty,

the bow of Jonathan did not turn back,

the sword of Saul did not return unsatisfied.

Saul and Jonathan—

in life they were loved and admired,

and in death they were not parted.

They were swifter than eagles,

they were stronger than lions.

“Daughters of Israel,

weep for Saul,

who clothed you in scarlet and finery,

who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.

“How the mighty have fallen in battle!

Jonathan lies slain on your heights.

I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother;

you were very dear to me.

Your love for me was wonderful,

more wonderful than that of women.

“How the mighty have fallen!

The weapons of war have perished!”

This is a remarkable example of a public lamentation over the intrusiveness of death in our lives. This morning, I’d like us to take a long look at what David is doing in composing and teaching this song to the people of God.

He names what has been lost. Four times in those eleven verses he mentions Saul by name; three times he mentions Jonathan. David, whose very name means “beloved of God”, cries out at the loss of the one he names “beloved”. He laments not just the death of his friend and his surrogate father, but the loss of any number of possible futures. This is a tremendous outpouring of grief not just from an individual, but from and on behalf of a nation.

Have you ever known this kind of grief? I, who probably spend more time with dead and dying people than most of you, have been surprised by it several times. Most dramatically, I remember a trip I was pleased to take through the nation of Egypt. We saw a lot of old things – and, by implication, a lot of death. Tombs and pyramids and catacombs…all kinds of death.

Commonwealth War Graves in El Alamein, Egypt

Commonwealth War Graves in El Alamein, Egypt

But one day we visited the military museum and cemetery at El Alamein. This battle was the culmination of a series of conflicts that were fought across Northern Africa for the second half of 1942.  It was a decisive event for the Allies as it denied Hitler and Mussolini access to the Suez Canal. The thing that took my breath away was row upon row of headstones – each with a name and an age.  Boys who came from Auckland, New Zealand, or Pretoria, South Africa, or Cardiff in Wales or Calcutta, India, or Ontario, Canada…and died at 21 or 23 or 32 in the deserts of North Africa.  There were so many graves… J. V. Griffiths, J. W. McNeely, A. F. Martin, J. Alastair Seabrook, and too many “soldiers known but to God.”

I wept on that day. I wept for these young men, and their families, and the sweethearts or children they may have left… and I wept because we are still building war cemeteries. And here is the truth: I was embarrassed by my tears. In fact, I made the rest of my group wait out in the parking lot because I didn’t want to get in the vehicle while I was crying.

That’s what we do, we Americans. Especially we male Americans. We deny the reality of death. We hold it in. We hide it from ourselves and each other. We refuse to make our grief public, and we don’t know how to enter into someone else’s sadness. Even those of us who claim faith, who talk of eternity and the promise we’ve been given… we don’t know what to say and so we flee death.

death800x800There’s an ancient fable from Iraq that teaches us about the inevitability of death and our fear of it. It seems as though a certain man asked his most trusted servant to go to the market in Bagdad and buy only the finest of food and wine to share with his friends. The servant set out for this task, but returned home in a matter of moments, looking very alarmed and frightened.

“Master, just now in the market I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Please – let me take your horse so I can get away from here. I’ll go to hide at my cousin’s home in Samarra and Death won’t find me there.”

The master thought that was a fine plan, and so sent the servant off on his horse. Later, he went into Bagdad himself, and saw Death at the market. Angrily, he went over and said, “Why did you make such a threatening gesture to my servant?”

Death said, “I didn’t threaten him at all – I was merely surprised to see him here in Bagdad. After all, I have an appointment to meet him in Samarra tonight.”

Grieving Man - Face in Hands, by Clive Barker (2000). Used by permission; more at http://www.clivebarker.info

Grieving Man – Face in Hands, by Clive Barker (2000). Used by permission; more at http://www.clivebarker.info

Don’t we know how that servant felt? Aren’t so many of us unwilling to consider any kind of death, whether it’s our own or someone else’s or some other form of loss or decay?

We avoid pain at all costs, don’t we? There’s an ache, a strain, a sadness, a sting… and we want to take a pill, have a drink, get a shot – anything in order to numb ourselves and avoid the suffering of the moment.

So much of the time, we can’t even acknowledge the impact of the loss, the horror, or the grief that shows up in our lives. Think of all the times we are tempted to gloss over or make light of significant pain and real loss, simply because we don’t know what to say or how to acknowledge the intrusiveness of death or suffering.

A friend’s divorce is finalized… and we say, “OK, wow! Glad that’s over… now, tiger, it’s time to get back out there and make yourself happy!”

That young woman down the street suffers through the death of her child through miscarriage or infant death… and we say, “Hey, that’s too bad… but at least you’re young, and you’ll have another…I have two friends who’ve been given ‘rainbow’ babies…”

The soldier comes back from a deployment in Afghanistan, where he has seen and done the unspeakable (often in our name)… and we pat him on the back, give him a free meal at Applebee’s on Veteran’s Day, and fly really big flags at the Super Bowl…

Your mother, sister, husband, or son dies, and four days after the funeral, people look at you and say, “Hey, how’s it going, huh? Things coming back to normal, I bet?”

No. No, it’s not normal. None of these things is normal, and none of them are easily dismissed. Please, for the love of God, don’t pretend that this kind of loss or death is insignificant.

Here is the truth, beloved: our pretending that we’re going to live forever and that death can’t touch us and that there’s no loss that is deeply interruptive… well, that kind of charade is simply killing us.

isolationThe United States of America is by many measures the most highly developed, materially-blessed, economically advanced places in the world. And yet every year, 3.5% of American adults are diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. 9% of Americans will suffer from that at some point in their lives.

In the rest of the world, those numbers are between .5% and 1%.[1]

How can this be? Why are we experiencing this kind of anxiety disorder at a rate that is seven to ten times higher than the rest of the world? Are we dying more? Do we face more trauma than do people in other countries?

That’s hard to imagine. By and large, I would suggest that we do not suffer the ways that many in the rest of the world do. So what’s happening?

Could it be that we are victims of our own propensity to deny the reality of pain and death? When grief finds its way into our lives, we shove it deep inside. We hide it. We make it our own – our private possession, deeply personal. We hang onto it, but we are unable to share it, and so it becomes in some ways like Gollum’s ring – it twists and contorts us, and us alone, driving us further from community, further from reality. The ultimate result is that 40 million Americans now meet the clinical criteria for addiction to alcohol, nicotine, or other drugs, and a staggering 80 million more are termed “risky substance abusers”.[2] More than 30% of adults in the United States suffer from some form of depression – the second-highest rate in the world.[3]

David Mourns for Saul, Guyart des Moulins (1357)

David Mourns for Saul, Guyart des Moulins (1357)

And in contrast to all of this come the words of II Samuel and II Corinthians. Each of our texts for today speak of the importance of naming the reality of the fragility of our lives, of claiming grief as a public reality, of identifying the intrusiveness of loss in our lives, and of trusting God to see us through even when our own vision is failing us.

I know that worshiping together and seeking to act in a way that emphasizes the community we share are not cures for depression or addiction or PTSD.

But I would suggest that learning how to lament – how to come together and name the grief that affects us all at one time or another – is one way of seeking to prevent those afflictions in our lives and communities. We speak to the frustrations and rejections and devastations that we have experienced, and together we neither gloss over the losses we’ve suffered nor allow them to become the things that define us. You are not “the kid whose father died” or “the lady that lost her son” or “the man whose wife left him,” but those things did happen and surely cost you something. They are there, but they are not all that is there. There is more to it than that.

We are, all of us, mortal. And we all, each of us, have an appointment with death (mortis).[4] We dare not deny the power or sting of death – but God forbid that we insist that’s all there is. The gesture of lamentation in community – of sharing grief and loss – helps us to see the bigger picture that God is writing through history, and how our own stories are wrapped up in the bigger drama of God’s working in the world. Each of our losses and all of our pain is in many ways ours alone, but it is ours to share in the presence and gift of community – a community that reminds us of hope and life and healing. Thanks be to God for that. Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Posttraumatic_stress_disorder

[2] http://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/policy-dose/2015/06/01/america-is-neglecting-its-addiction-problem

[3] http://www.healthline.com/health/depression/statistics-infographic

[4] Thanks to Eugene Peterson (Leap Over A Wall, HarperCollins 1997) for this bit of insight!

When the World Falls Apart

Each summer, the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights, through its Open Door Youth Outreach, sponsors a free five-week day camp for as many as 50 neighborhood children.  Because we invite these children and their families to worship, we often try to have a theme for our time together on Sundays.  In 2016, we’ll be listening to the story found in the book of Roth.  Our text for Sunday June 19 was Ruth 1.  

 

If I heard it once, I heard it a dozen times last week as I shared vacation with my granddaughter: “Read me a story, Grampy.” And I did. You know I did.

Because we all love stories, don’t we? We like to hear them, read them, watch them, tell them… We use stories to entertain, instruct, inspire… we use stories to allow us to enter into a different reality – one that, if we’re lucky, allows us to understand our own a little better.

So this summer, we’re going to dive into one of my favorite stories of all time, a classic “once-upon-a-time” love story from the Old Testament that begins in tragedy and ends with “happily ever after”. It is, as you have heard, the story of Elimilech’s family – and more particularly, some of the women in that family.

Here’s a spoiler alert: if the story was really about Elimilech, it wouldn’t be in the Bible. If it was really about Naomi, or Ruth, or Boaz, it wouldn’t be in the Bible. Mostly, it’s in the Bible because of the ways that it points to the family that became King David’s family, and as you know, King David was a pretty big deal in the Bible.

More than that, though, it’s a story about the family that became Jesus’ family – also a pretty big deal in the Bible.

But as much as I’d like to tell you this story because it’s about Elimilech, or Naomi, or Ruth, or David, or Jesus… I think that the main reason we need to hear it today is because it’s about us. For the next five weeks, we’ll be listening to this old story and, I hope, being entertained, instructed, inspired, and challenged as we try to live lives of faith in 2016.

“Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab”, William Blake (1795)

“Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab”, William Blake (1795)

The story begins with some amazingly horrible events. There is a famine in the land of the Promise, the land of Israel – and so Elimilech and his family become refugees in the land of Moab. Once there, however, things go from bad to worse, because only three verses into the story, Elimilech dies. It only takes two more verses for his only children, Mahlon and Chilion, to succumb, and now Elimilech’s widow is left with two foreign daughters-in-law in a foreign land. The first five verses of our story are about death, decay, and devastation.

Sounds like page one of this morning’s newspaper, doesn’t it? Shootings in Orlando, or Wilkinsburg, or Crafton Heights. Refugees streaming across borders in Turkey or Greece or Ethiopia or Germany or Honduras or… Families, many of which we know and love, who have been displaced by untimely death, or job loss, or the arrest of someone in the family, or unsavory landlords…

We don’t know what it’s like to move from ancient Israel into ancient Moab, but we know something about pain and loss and times when it seems like the world is simply falling to pieces, don’t we?

And when that happens, well, it can be easy to think that we are alone in the world. Nobody has felt pain like our pain. Nobody knows the difficulties we’ve been through. We are alone in our struggle against the universe, or God, or fate. And so in our reading from this morning, Naomi responds to the famine in her native land and the deaths of her husband and sons by sending away her daughters-in-law. “Don’t waste your time with me,” she says, “I’m a broken down wretch of a creature.” She tries to bless these women as she sends them back to their homes, but her heart isn’t really in it. Eventually, Orpah is able to leave her mother-in-law, but Ruth won’t hear of it. Four times, the old widow looks Ruth in the eye and says, “You don’t get it, do you? I’m alone. Beat it. Go home.” Because that’s what pain does, doesn’t it: it isolates you.

In his  “Ted Talk” on depression (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-eBUcBfkVCo), Andrew Solomon says,

Everything there was to do seemed like too much work. I would come home and I would see the red light flashing on my answering machine, and instead of being thrilled to hear from my friends, I would think, “What a lot of people that is to have to call back.” Or I would decide I should have lunch, and then I would think, but I’d have to get the food out and put it on a plate and cut it up and chew it and swallow it, and it felt to me like the Stations of the Cross.

“Naomi and Her Daughters-In-Law”, Marc Chagall, 1960

“Naomi and Her Daughters-In-Law”, Marc Chagall, 1960

That’s what grief and pain and loss do to us, isn’t it? They make it seem impossible to grasp any kind of future. I’ve seen that in refugee camps in South Sudan. I heard it when my friend Kucho said, “the government of Sudan is bombing our villages in the Nuba mountains every week, and the world does not notice. Nobody cares. We are alone.” I have heard that in the plaintive cries of the lost and lonely and grief stricken here in our own community: “Go on home, Dave. You can’t do anything anyway. Nobody can.”

There are times, when like Naomi, we become convinced that not only is the world against us, but the Lord is too. “The hand of the Lord has turned against me”, she weeps. When the world is falling apart, it’s easy to think that you’re alone.

So our story tells us, so far, that horrible things happen and that when they do, we feel like we are alone. Another lesson from this chapter is that people who are in pain can be, well, unpleasant. Sometimes, people in pain act like real jerks. For instance, after Naomi is unsuccessful at getting her daughter-in-law to go back to her family, she returns to Bethlehem (accompanied by Ruth). Did you hear what she said when she got there? “My name isn’t ‘Naomi’ (meaning ‘pleasant’) anymore. Call me ‘Mara’ (which means ‘bitter’) from now on. When I left, I was full, but now I am empty and alone.”

Now when she says this, who’s there? The folks in Bethlehem, of course, but also Ruth. Here’s Naomi going on and on about how nobody loves her and all this horrible stuff has happened and she’s all alone in the world, and Ruth is standing there, helping to hold the old lady up, waiting to be introduced. The more that Naomi complains about being alone and bereft, the more Ruth has to be thinking, “Seriously? What am I, chopped liver? You know I can hear you, right Naomi?”

Remember Ruth had just made this amazingly beautiful speech about love and support and faithfulness – so beautiful, in fact, that some of you wanted to read it in your wedding services – and now Naomi is pretending that Ruth doesn’t even exist. What is up with that?

People in pain lash out – and often that winds up hurting those who choose to come close. I’ve seen that happen in a hundred ways: someone comes in to the church looking for a little help, and we go to the food pantry to pull a few things together. I come into the room where the person is waiting and explain that I’ve got some spaghetti and beans and peanut butter and whatnot and the person looks into the bag and says, “Strawberry jam? Seriously? I hate strawberry. Is this the best you’ve got?”

My first reaction is get defensive, and to proclaim, “Listen, Bub, you better check that attitude at the door because I’m only trying to help here… you’ve got no right to be angry with me.” And I realize, this person isn’t really angry with me. This person is ashamed at having to come to our food pantry, or devastated at the loss of a job, or otherwise incapacitated by the pain they’ve suffered, and I happen to be standing here at the time. That’s what happens when the world falls apart – we become people that we don’t want to be, at times.

So what do we do? We get it, Dave – the world is a hard place for lots of people on lots of days. What are we supposed to do about that?

The first and most important thing that we can do is to, pardon my language, give a damn. In a media cycle full of alligator attacks and celebrity divorces and gossip scandals and basketball finals… it’s easy to think of 49 people gunned down in Orlando as so “last week”, or to think that the nearly sixty million forcibly displaced people across the globe are someone else’s neighbor, not mine. You don’t like the news that’s in front of you? Change the channel. Turn the page. Play some Candy Crush or Trivia Crack. Who needs that negativity in your life, anyway?

I’m not asking you to care because it’s easy, or because it makes sense in your life right now. I’m asking you to give a rat’s ass about these kinds of things because I think that’s what the Gospel compels us to do. And if you are able to muster some discipline to care, at least a little bit, about the people whose lives are falling apart, then the next step is to look for a way to enter into some part of their story with them.

For the people who are close at hand, that’s a little easier. Our Cross Trainers Staff, for instance, will have the opportunity to brush up against some young people this summer whose worlds have been or are being turned upside down in all kinds of ways. You all will spend time with children who have been abused or neglected; you will engage with young people whom God loves dearly who carry incredible scars that might well be invisible. If someone opens up to you about some incredible pain, know that in all probability, you won’t be able to fix it. Fortunately, it’s not your job to fix it. It’s your job – it’s everyone’s job – to listen for it. To respect it. To enter into it. And then, perhaps in conversation with Brad or Jason or me or someone else, to help that child get to a place where she or he is able to envision a different reality for her or himself. The young people we’re hiring have the easiest way to respond to the message this morning.

stop-the-gun-violence-iconAnd if you’re not on Cross Trainers staff? Figure out a way to care. I don’t care if you are a gun owner or a pacifist, can we agree that it’s horrible when 50 young people are cut down while dancing in Florida? Can we agree that it’s not God’s intention for school children or office workers or worshippers to be mowed down by the blazing barrel of an assault weapon? Assuming we can agree on that, can we talk about creating some strategies for reducing the likelihood of that happening? This is a great week for that kind of discussion in all kinds of ways. There will be some discussion of action on a national level about legislation, and you might want to reach out to our senators or representatives. Offer your ideas as to what we can do to reduce the number of funerals at which we wring our hands and say “never again”.

But here’s the deal on that, from me, this week. If you are a Christian, you are not permitted to make this conversation about what you need to do to protect your rights and keep your options open. Frankly, as a follower of Jesus, you’ve already settled that: you’ve confessed that your rights are not the most important rights in the world – that you are here to serve others. I’m not saying you don’t have rights or shouldn’t value them – but that’s not the reason for this conversation. The reason for the conversation is to look for ways to staunch the flow of innocent blood. Talk about the people who will never experience another “right”, about the parents or spouses or children who sit across the breakfast table from an empty seat this morning. Obviously, any solution to gun violence will have to account for individual rights, yours included – but how about if we don’t start there? How about if we start by throwing around some ideas geared towards preventing gun violence?

REFUGEES-1And maybe, for some reason, you just can’t get your head wrapped around how to slow gun violence in our community or our world. Here’s another option. Did you know that June 20 is World Refugee Day? Every minute of every day, an average of 8 people are forced to flee their homes in search of somewhere safer. On average, refugees spend seventeen years – seventeen stinking years! – waiting for whatever is going to come next: a return to their home, a resettlement somewhere else; seventeen years of uncertainty and vulnerability. Those people drowning in the Aegean Sea, or walking across borders in Hungary, or riding the trains north through Central America… they are children of God. They are our neighbors. We are called to do what we can do to make our world a better and safer place for everyone, not just us.

And again, please don’t come crowing to me about how we can’t really help these refugees because all they want to do is come here and take our stuff. As a follower of Jesus Christ, you’ve already said that what’s yours isn’t the most important thing, but rather, living in the footsteps of Jesus is what you want to be about. Your stuff, my stuff – it’s important (hey, I have a fence to keep the deer out of my garden) – but it’s far from the most important thing, and it’s not where we’re beginning this conversation.

I’ve offered a Resource Document containing a number of websites for you to check out on your own time this week. Some are related to gun violence, while others have to do with refugees. Please understand, the only action that I am actively endorsing is that you take the time to care about this stuff. I’m not saying we are going to agree on strategies – but I am saying that Elimilech’s story, and Naomi’s story, and Ruth’s and David’s and Jesus’ story – that our story – ought to drive us to the place where we care about what happens; and that place of care can lead us to a means by which to get involved.

This is our story. We are created as people in and for community. Can we choose to care, and to act together as we stand against violence and hatred and death? Thanks be to God, who calls us from death to life through Jesus his Son, Amen.

After the Fireworks

Sunday, May 31 many of our sisters and brothers in faith were contemplating the mysteries of Trinity Sunday.  At Crafton Heights, we held on to the notion of Pentecost a little longer, and I wondered what life was like for folks after the big displays of God’s power.  Our scriptures included I Kings 19:9-18 and Acts 2:42-47

Think about a time you were in the middle of something – doing a job or working on a project, the only thing you wanted was to stop doing that thing. Have you ever felt as though what you really wanted was to quit whatever you were doing, but for whatever reason, you just couldn’t?

If that’s the case, then you can really identify with the story of Elijah. We’ve only read a portion of his story this morning, but let me tell you that he is THE prophet of God in the Old Testament. There are no books that bear his name, but Elijah is the one to whom people are looking when they want to know what the Messiah will be like. Elijah is HUGE in the Old Testament.

Elijah on Horeb, by Sieger Köder (German, 1925-2015)

Elijah on Horeb, by Sieger Köder (German, 1925-2015)

In our reading, we meet Elijah as he’s fresh from the biggest victory of his prophetic career – and that’s saying something. He’s been at Mount Carmel, where he’s challenged the pagan-worshipping leaders of Israel to a prophetic duel. There were 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah who were defeated by the power of the Lord. Elijah presided at a mass conversion of the Israelites back to the way of the Lord. God’s power was displayed in a mighty fashion. It was amazing.

And then the Queen of Israel finds out about it, and she sends Elijah a death threat. He throws up his hands and heads for the wilderness. He tries to quit his job as a prophet – he asks God to take his life. He’s burnt out. Take a look at Elijah here – he sounds like he is dealing with a classic case of depression.

He brings his complaint to God, and he seems to forget everything that’s just happened. “I alone am left,” he says. He overlooks the mass conversions, the incredible demonstrations of God’s power. “They want to kill me,” he says.

And God says to him, “I’m coming. Go out and stand before me.” But Elijah doesn’t do it! He stays hiding in the cave. And God unleashes some incredible fireworks – there is rock-splitting wind, there’s an earthquake, there’s a tremendous fire. But what does Elijah do? Nothing! He’s still hiding in the cave. The fireworks don’t impress him. “I’ve seen it,” he says. “I know the tricks. I just want to quit. I’m all alone, and I want to die.”

After the fireworks, there’s a silence and a calm — and that’s enough to draw Elijah from the cave. But look at him. He’s still hiding – wrapping himself in his scarf, hiding his face. He’s still miserable – he repeats the exact same speech to the Lord. He’s unchanged by the very appearance of God!

Have you ever been depressed and someone has tried to cheer you up? Someone has tried to talk you out of it? Doesn’t work very well, does it? Look at what God does with Elijah. He listens to the little speech. He doesn’t argue with the Prophet. But he doesn’t let him quit, either. He gives Elijah a new mission – to anoint the kings of Aram and Judah. He gives Elijah a new partner – Elisha. He promises that there are at least 7000 faithful servants who have not bowed and worshipped the idols. Now you could say that God not only doesn’t let Elijah quit – he puts him on a committee! But I prefer to say that God shows Elijah his place among the people of God. He reminds him of the fact that he belongs to God – and to God’s people.

Now, if we flip ahead to the New Testament reading, you’ll see that there are fireworks here, too. Last week we spent the Sabbath remembering all that happened on the day of Pentecost. There were tongues of flame resting on the heads of the followers of Jesus. People were given the gift of speaking in new languages. Peter preaches a powerful sermon, and more than 3000 people are converted that day. And Luke could have stopped the story there, but he didn’t.

We Are All One in Jesus Christ, by Soichi Watanabe, (Japanese, 2009)

We Are All One in Jesus Christ, by Soichi Watanabe, (Japanese, 2009)

Luke goes on to tell us that after the fireworks, those who believed in Jesus were regularly gathering for teaching, fellowship, shared meals, and prayer. And what happened is that God used this time after the fireworks to change the church. What had been a group of a couple of dozen followers of Jesus who were scared to death slowly changed into a community of vigorous believers who found their identity as being the People of God. They came together for teaching, fellowship, shared meals, and prayer — and found that God had transformed them into the Body of Christ. After the fireworks of Pentecost had gone off, that Body continued to be together. They continued in faithfulness, even when in the days after that outpouring of the Spirit their leaders are arrested and jailed. They continued to meet together, to dwell together, and share life together.

So what? What is the application for those of us who are seeking to be faithful Christians two thousand years later?

Is it just me, or did many of you come into this room because of, or after, the fireworks? I know, you weren’t up on the mountain and you didn’t live through the windstorm or the earthquake or the firestorm; I know you didn’t all of a sudden start speaking in other languages. But you’ve seen fireworks, all right.

Some of you are here because you had a baby, once upon a time, and you figured that God’s hand was in that and you ought to figure out what it was all about. Some of you are here because a marriage started, and you wanted to start if off right. Others of you got here because a marriage ended, and you were looking for God’s presence in the midst of that firestorm. I think it’s safe to say that there are a lot of us who are here because of the fireworks.

The question is this: are you in the room, or are you in the family of God? Are you a part of the furniture, or are you a part of the body of Christ?

For a while, we’ve been easing out of the “high holy days” of Lent and Easter. Pentecost marked the last big holiday in the church for a long time. From here on in, we’re in “ordinary time”. Time that is given to us to discover what it means to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ as we go through the ordinariness of our lives. I would suggest this morning that one of the core truths of scripture is that consistent investment with and involvement in the body of Christ is essential for faithful living.

What does that mean? Well, it means that being here is important. That it’s important for us to be together in worship, as we are now; it’s important for us to be together in study, as we were during FaithBuilders and as many of us are at other points in the week; it’s important for us to be together in the business and administration of the congregation in venues such as the Preschool Board or the Congregational Life committee.

Now, beloved, I know that these things are true:

I know that your living room sofa is far more comfortable than these pews ever will be. And I’m pretty sure that your TV room is a lot cooler than this old building is right now. You can get a better preacher by turning on the television or checking out YouTube. Our music here isn’t bad, but let’s be honest. If it’s sheer talent and performance you’re after, you’d be better off visiting iTunes.

Some years ago, I left this building and was convinced that we had just witnessed a profound worship event. Everything just clicked, if you know what I mean. There was special music. The sermon was good. Prayer time was open and honest. There was a crowd here. You know the kind of service I mean… So a friend of mine was unable to be here. I gave him the recording and said, “wow, you really missed something special. Check this out.” The next day he called me back and I asked him what he thought. His first reaction was, “the soloist was very flat on the special music, and the choir was out of synch. Also, you mumbled quite a bit on the sermon. And it was too long.”

I was convinced it was a worship service that changed lives. I still believe that. But he wasn’t here to experience it. He didn’t see the face of the soloist as she led us in worship. He couldn’t see the faces of the people listening to the choir. He didn’t see the Jr. High students paying attention to the sermon. He had the recording, but he wasn’t in worship.

There’s something about being together with a group of believers that makes all the difference in the world. You could find more comfortable seats, better preaching, and more quality music in other places, but you’d miss something essential to faithful living — you’d miss being able to participate in this part of the body of Christ.

“Uh, Hello, Dave! You’re preaching to the choir, now. Take a look, Pastor. We are here.”

Yes, you are, but now you take a look. I’m not really preaching to the whole choir, am I? There are some empty seats. There are people missing.

And the world – and our culture – says, “Hey, it’s their choice. They know how to get here. I’m not going to be pushy or nagging.” The culture would say to us, “You know, they were here last week. Can’t expect too much. After all, summer is just beginning…or it’s softball season… or I’ve got people coming in from out of town…”

Yet the Word of God tells us that we are one body. That we belong to Christ, and that we belong to each other. Who is not here this morning? Why aren’t they here? And do you realize that we are diminished by their absence?

Oh, it’s not about the numbers. Sure, our numbers would be higher if everyone was here. But it’s much more important than that. Scripture tells us that people who belong to Christ and to each other spend time together doing things like teaching, and fellowshipping, and sharing meals, and praying. And if a significant number of us start behaving as though our presence or absence here is insignificant, then we’ll lose our ability to really behave as the body of Christ. And if that happens, then we’ll find that we are not effective in the ministry to which the Lord calls us. And if that happens, we will find that we succumb to the same depression and alienation that threatened Elijah’s ministry.

So what am I asking you to do, my friends? Two simple things. First, I want to encourage you to be here in worship each week. If you’re not traveling and you’re not ill, then you ought to be here. Because worship is different than anything else in your life. Going out to brunch or playing in a sports league or getting a head start on your shopping are all things that you do. Worship is where you find out who you are. The culture will tell you that it’s one item on the menu of choices that you’ll make this week. And I’m telling you that if you lose your connection with the Body of Christ, none of your other connections will have much relevance or impact. So will you be here – not for me only, but for you, and for those other members of the body in which you share.

The second thing I’d like you to do is to look for the people who aren’t here, and tell them that you miss them. I’m not asking you to call people and harangue them for not showing up. I’m not asking you to play detective and try to find out why they’ve missed the last two weeks. I’m simply asking you to reach out to one of your fellow disciples and say, “Gee, I missed you at worship today. Are you all right? You’re in my thoughts.” In fact, why not take a peek around during the offertory and see who’s here. Then pull out your phone and send a text to someone saying, “I’m here, and I don’t see you here. I wish you were here.”

Tell them that you miss them. Because we do, you know. We are called to an incredible mission. We are given a great responsibility. And we can’t do it without everyone being represented. It is one we share as the body of Christ in this place at this time. Right now, you might not even know why you miss that person; but I pray you’ll have a chance to discover her gift or his ministry as they have the opportunity to share it here, with the rest of the disciples whom God has called in this place. Be here. And look for those who aren’t. Amen.