All Human Life is Here

1 Kings 19.1-4

Galatians 3.23-29

Luke 8.26-39

One day the zoo keeper noticed that the orangutang was reading two books, in one hand he held Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” and in the other he held the Bible.

Naturally surprised, the keeper asked the orangutang, “Why are you reading both of those books?”

“Well,” said the orangutang, “I just wanted to know if I was my brother’s keeper or my keeper’s brother.”

Of course it is quite possible to be both, and scientific information about how life evolved does not contradict a religious view of what life is for, and vice versa.

The Bible is an extraordinary book, or rather a collection of books.  It contains everything from ancient myths to erotic poetry, from the first recorded novel to a collection of wise sayings, from an hymn book to some letters.  It contains material written in circumstances varying from triumph to despair.  From a secure land to refugees in exile.  All human life is here, and this morning’s eclectic selection of readings illustrate that perfectly.

You may or may not be aware that I don’t choose the readings, they are chosen by a committee and printed in a lectionary that is shared by Anglicans, Roman Catholics and United Reformed Churches (with a few local variations).  Most mainstream Christian Churches in the world are looking at these texts today.

So what are the texts that the Church has given us today?

Our first reading, from the 1st book of Kings, continues the story of the prophet Elijah, we focussed on that a few weeks ago when we heard how he was saved from starvation by the hospitality of the poor widow.  In our latest instalment Elijah is in despair, he is being hunted by Jezebel’s followers, hiding in the wilderness, and just longing to give up and die.

It’s a cliffhanger ending, and we will return to Elijah in a few weeks time…

Then our Gospel reading is equally dramatic, and features a dramatic exorcism.  As a fan of horror movies, this is one of the best and most referenced stories in popular horror culture.

We have the great privilege of Ethan’s baptism in todays service, and as I told Ethan’s parents, Robbie and Anna, here at the Ascension we use the New Zealand Baptism service as it leaves out the line on the English Prayer Book about rejecting the Devil.  Most of us no longer believe in a literal being called the Devil who is out to get us, but we use the devil as a metaphor for all that corrupting, life-denying, abusive, selfish and cruel.

Jesus turned people’s lives around, and still does today.  Not by saving us from a being with horns and hoofs, but by finding the goodness and godliness that exists in us all and bringing it to the surface.

I don’t chose the readings, but if I did the one we had from Galatians would be read every few weeks, it is one of the foundational texts for Inclusive Christianity.

St Paul was writhing to a divided church:

  • the Church was divided by race and religious background – some of the Jewish Christians who followed the Jewish Law felt that you had to convert to Judaism as part of being a Christian, some Gentile Christians (including St. Paul) thought that all that was needed was to follow Christ.
  • the Church was divided by social status – the Church contained members from the educated, wealthy elite, and also slaves and outcasts, people on the edge of society.
  • the Church was divided by gender – Jesus gave women key roles in his ministry, reading between the lines we can see than the males are trying to reassert truadional roles of authority.

The Church today is divided by theology and politics, and the early church was just the same, and into all these divisions St Paul throws an outrageous, revolutionary and for many an unthinkable text:

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

The truth at the heart of Christianity is that God loves every one of us – every human being alive.  And that how we judge our differences – of age or gender or race or sexuality or social status do not matter at all to God.

There is an old saying from the Baptist Church I attended at my youth – the pastor used to say “the ground is level at the foot of the cross.” Meaning that we all stand on the same level – in our encounter with God the poor have the same status as the rich, the uneducated with the educated, the outcast and the respectable…

In our church, in our lives, in our dealings with others let us try and live out this message and show true Christian love…

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1st Reading:  1 Kings 19.1-4

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”

2nd Reading: Galatians 3.23-29

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with  Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Gospel Reading: Luke 8.26-39

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

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Elijah & the Widow

1 Kings 17.8-16

This morning we are going to be thinking about Elijah.  If you know your Bible, you will know the most famous story of Elijah was his contest with the prophets of Baal to see who’s God could call down fire on their altar.

I heard of an incident when a Sunday school teacher was carefully explaining the story of Elijah the Prophet and the servants of Baal.  She explained how Elijah built the altar, put wood upon it, cut the ox in pieces and laid it upon the altar.

And then Elijah commanded the people of God to fill four barrels of water and pour it over the altar. He had them do this four times.

“Now, said the teacher, “can anyone in the class tell me why the Lord would have Elijah pour water over the ox on the altar?”

A little girl in the back of the room raised her hand with great enthusiasm. “To make the gravy.”

This morning we looking at the story of Elijah before his famous showdown.

To put it  in context, by the 9th century BCE, the Kingdom of Israel, was split in two: the northern Kingdom kept the name “Israel” and southern Kingdom was called “Judah.”  The southern Kingdom is probably the one that we think about the most because that’s where Jerusalem was (and it was the centre for government and religion with the site of the great Temple).  The Southern Kingdom was ruled over by the descendants of King David.  And that’s where almost all of Jesus’ ministry is set.

However, our reading takes place in the North.

Omri, the sixth King of the divided Israel, at first sounds like an interesting liberal kind of guy: he allowed diversity in the religious tradition: he encouraged the building of local temple altars for sacrifices (until then sacrifices were only allowed in the Temple in Jerusalem); he allowed priests from outside the traditional priestly tribe of the Levites; he also was tolerant of other religions and and encouraged the building  of temples dedicated to Baal.

Omri made a canny deal to stop the conflict between the followers of JHWH and the followers of Baal by a marriage alliance between his son Ahab and princess Jezebel, a priestess of Baal and the daughter of the king of Sidon in Phoenicia.

This marriage was a great success and brought peace, security and economic prosperity to Israel.  However the Israelite prophets objected – they demanded a more strict interpretation of the Mosaic law.

When Omri’s son, Ahab, took the throne the tensions grew.  Ahab built a temple for Baal, and his wife Jezebel brought a large entourage of priests and prophets of Baal and Asherah into the country.

In the passage that immediately precedes this morning’s reading Elijah condemns King Ahab for doing evil in the sight of the Lord and predicts a drought that will last years.

Its tempting to question the whole Biblical narrative and think that Ahab and Jezebel may have been the good guys and that Elijah was a troublemaking fanatic.  However, our sympathy Ahab’s tolerance for Baal worship must be tempered by the knowledge that its practices included human sacrifice, including the sacrifice of children.

History is written by the winners, and the same is true of the Bible, the narrative beneath the narrative is sometimes more interesting and nuanced than the surface – that is the whole basis of feminist theology.  But I digress…

In the narrative Elijah delivers God’s message and then literally runs for the hills.  Our reading from the book of Kings is set in the town of Zarephath, a small port city on the Phoenician coast between the cities of Tyre and Sidon.

While the drought withered the crops and huger spread through the land, God provided for the prophet Elijah by sending him ravens.  In case you are wondering he didn’t eat the ravens (or so the story goes) but rather the birds brought him bread and meat every morning and evening.  While the birds were behaving like cartoon creatures in a Disney movie, there was a small stream east of the river Jordan that provided his water.  However as the famine continued, the stream dried up, and Elijah was forced to move on.

God doesn’t send Elijah to a local merchant or wealthy household that would have supplies to see them through the famine, instead he sends Elijah to a poor widow.

There are several interesting things about this woman, that should have put him Elijah off:

The first, and obvious thing that made the poor widow an inappropriate candidate for helping Elijah was that she was a poor widow.  She had barely enough food for her and her son but that is where Elijah was sent.

There may be some logic in sending Elijah to someone poor.  As Jonathan, our outgoing treasurer, has pointed out many times, giving (at least to the church) is regressive – generally the more someone earns the less they give; not simply the less they give as a percentage of their income, but the less they give in total.  There is something about wealth that makes people want to keep it.

Generosity comes more naturally to the poor.

The second reason why the woman may have appeared a strange saviour to Elijah was that she was a Gentile.  Given Elijah’s hard line approach to religion, seeking help from someone outside the faith would have been a bitter pill for him to swallow.

Just as I’m pretty sure Jezebel was not the monster the Bible depicts, perhaps Elijah was not such a hard-line fanatic.  His time giving and receiving help from a Gentile shows a different side to him.

Perhaps God leads us not into places where we are comfortable, but into places where we can learn more about ourselves and about the world, and realise that God’s love stretches further than we may have realised.

So God sends Elijah to someone poor with barely enough food to survive, God sends Elijah to someone outside his religious tradition, and finally God sends Elijah to a woman who was a “sinner.”  The text doesn’t specify what her sin could have been, but when her son dies she cries out to the prophet, “have you come to remind me of my sin?”

It could be that the woman’s sins were not significant – maybe she did whatever was the 7th century BCE equivalent of keeping a library book overdue and just felt bad about it… or maybe she was the worst of sinners and had horribly murdered her husband.  The truth is probably somewhere in between these extremes, but she certainly felt like a sinner.

She was not the kind of morally upright person the prophets usually approved of.

To me the amazing thing about this story is not Elijah, who is a bit too scary and fanatical (in his later showdown with the prophets of Baal he takes the idea of “fire and brimstone” preaching a bit too literally) but the woman – who in her poverty is generous, who in her religion is open-minded, and who in her sinfulness is found worthy to play a part in God’s plan, and finds a place in Scripture.

Read over the story again at home, and pray for generosity, open-mindedness and a willingness to serve God.

Like the ancient widow, it might just change your whole life

 

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1 Kings 17:8-16

Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.

After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. She then said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” But he said to her, “Give me your son.” He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. He cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.” So the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”