Welcome Home

Inspired by Jeremiah 29:1, 10-14

Advent is one of my favorite seasons of the church year. I have a feeling that’s not the case for everyone though. By the time Advent rolls around, the rest of the world is in full-blown Christmas mode! And most pastors, stick to that old tradition of waiting, waiting until Christmas to actually sing Christmas hymns in worship. We’re just a bunch of grinches, aren’t we! And since we haven’t sung in so long, I actually thought about it, for like a quarter of a nanosecond but then thought, nah, we’ve waited this long, we can wait four more weeks to sing Christmas hymns! 

There’s a rebelliousness to it though that is really attractive to me, especially because Christmas out there is so secularized and commercialized, oh man, now I really do sound like a grinch! But it is! And coming here and singing about the coming of the messiah, as if the messiah hasn’t already come, almost feels like thumbing our noses at the Walmart version of Christmas. 

There is something to be said about waiting though. And today, Jeremiah has some things to say about waiting too, because things aren’t looking good for God’s people at this point of their story. Various prophets have been called to them to guide them and urge them to follow God’s ways that had been laid out for them for centuries. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough, and the neighboring nations finally got their way with them. First, it was the Assyrians that came and occupied their land. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Babylonians come along and conquer the Assyrians, and then not only take control of the occupied land, but decide to kick God’s people out, exiling them to Babylon, defeated and humiliated. Jeremiah, in what is one of the more pastoral moments in a prophet’s life, begins to write them letters, while they are in exile. 

Our reading from today is part of one of those letters, and it is one of the most tender moments between a prophet and God’s people. Don’t let that fool you though. There were plenty of “I told you so” moments in those letters. I mean, Jeremiah was still a prophet at heart. But we also know that the prophets loved their people, and that really shines in this particular passage when Jeremiah attempts to give them some hope in their distress. And I say “attempts” because I’m not sure just how good Jeremiah is at delivering hope, but I’ll let you decide that. Jeremiah has some words to share from God and our passage begins with, “When Babylon’s seventy years are up, I will come and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place.” So, remember what I said about Jeremiah’s hope skills being a bit questionable? 

I mean, the good news here is that there is an end. And when you are going through something, sometimes that’s all the good news that you need! To be told that this will end can be the best news you could ever get. But seventy years? Seventy years. Can you just imagine, being Jeremiah, having to write this letter to a people who were already in pain, already feeling defeated, already feeling humiliated, and going to them with, “Well, do you want the good news or the bad news first?” Can you imagine the response? “Bad news? You mean there’s more bad news? How much worse can this get?!” Well, I’m old enough to know not to ever ask that question! They got their answer though. Seventy years. 

That’s multiple generations! That means that people heard this “good news” and died before seeing it! Come on, God, you can do better than that! But that’s how it played out and we are left with trying to figure out what to do with it. So let’s keep moving and see what else God had to say, surely it must be better than seventy years! What follows is one of the best-known Bible verses of all time. We’ve seen this on t-shirts, bumper stickers, social media, you name it, this verse has been on it. And it’s well-deserved! It’s a great verse. God said, “I know the plans I have for you; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope.” Like I said, great verse, right? It’s just too bad it has to follow the previous verse about seventy years! I guarantee you, you’re not gonna see that verse on a t-shirt! 

But maybe we should! If you think about it, if we are following God’s ways, and one of those ways is to not come here as a bunch of selfish people only concerned with what we are gonna get outta this deal, then seventy years, or however many years it will be til we see the fruits of our current labor, will sound like good news. Because, as many of you have already discovered, the cold hard truth of your blood, sweat, and tears you’ve put in, is that you sometimes don’t get to see the good news that was promised. The cold hard truth is that we sometimes die in the hope that our children or our grandchildren, will reap the benefits of our sacrifice. And if you haven’t connected the dots by now, I’m specifically talking about the state of the church, both Christianity as a whole but also specifically about Bethlehem. 

Next Sunday is one of our annual congregational meetings and you have some big decisions to support or not support, big moves to ponder, all for the future of Bethlehem, a future Bethlehem that you don’t even know. And I can’t help but hear Jeremiah’s voice speak into our current challenges, speaking a word of hope, but also a reminder, that it’s gonna take a while. Every generation alive today might not see the fruits of their labor or their prayers for the church answered in this life. But that’s ok because another tenet of our faith is selflessness, not making everything about us. And that does not take away from the sacrifices that you’ve made, the love that you’ve poured into this church, and it certainly doesn’t take away from the power of God’s promise for a future.

Now we have to keep moving, but before we do, let me say a quick word about God’s plans because I see this verse misused all the time. Sometimes it’s the best verses that create such horrible theology. When God says, “I know the plans I have for you”, that’s not the same thing as saying, “The garbage you’re going through right now, was part of my plan!” Those are two totally different statements but they get conflated all the time! I know you’ve heard me rant about this before but I’m not going to stop until I stop hearing statements like, “God works in mysterious ways” after tragedy strikes. 

Or, “There’s a reason for everything”, again, after tragedy strikes. Every time someone says something like that I imagine God saying, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a sec, I had nothing to do with that!” Let me be crystal clear. God has never, will never, bring harm or heartache upon another living being. That is just not the way God works. And if you ever read something in the Bible that seems to contradict that, I guarantee you, there’s probably a good explanation for that, and it probably involves a human hand. 

But let’s keep moving because what God says next is where I see the real good news. God switches to the present. Don’t get me wrong, it is good news that their exile will end and it will end well, “But what about now”, they must have been thinking. God says, “When you call me and come and pray to me, I will listen to you. When you search for me…you will find me. I will be present for you.” Yes, God has a plan for your future, and that’s amazing, but guess what, God has a plan for your present too: to listen, to be found, to be present. And oh my goodness is that good news! 

Because when you are at your lowest of lows, just like they were, their homes had been stripped away, their land had been stripped away, their possessions had been stripped away, their temple had been stripped away from them, the one place they thought they could be nearest to God; when you are at your lowest of lows, sometimes it’s enough to just be heard, to be seen, to be sat with. God ends by saying “I will bring you home.” And I think we hear that as being a physical home, meaning, bringing them back to their homeland. 

And that was probably the original intention but I’m also thinking of that old saying, home is where you hang your hat. What if this was also Jeremiah’s way of telling them, home is where God listens to you, home is where God sees you, home is where God is present with you? And if Jeremiah was wise enough to mean it that way, wow, then this is where the real good news is, far beyond any plans God may have for us, but in the present, in the now, hearing God say, “I am your home. Welcome.”


The Waters of Justice

 Inspired by Amos 1:1-2; 5:12-15, 21-24

Well, I told you these prophets were an interesting bunch of characters and Amos does not disappoint. If you’re following the overall biblical narrative, we are about fifty years past last week’s reading from the end of the prophet Elijah’s work, but we are still in the northern kingdom of Israel. The political and spiritual strife had not gone away. And Amos has now been chosen to continue the prophetic work with Israel. And by prophetic work I mean trying to get them to see the light, that their behavior is what’s holding them back. They are their own worst enemy. It’s more of the same human story, right! A quick word about Amos, he was not from the northern kingdom, he was a southerner, and if you want to imagine him with a southern accent go right ahead but if you do, it’ll have to be an angry southern accent, because Amos was an angry prophet!  

You might think they were all angry and it’d be tough to argue with that but Amos was an extra salty little prophet! I don’t know why I think of him as small, maybe it’s his short name or his short book but I always imagine him as an angry little guy! So, here we have an angry prophet who is trying to speak truth to power to a people that consider him an outsider, Jewish yes but one of those southern kind. I would imagine a lot of pastors can relate to Amos. We come to each of our churches, with our new ideas, trying to get people off their butts and follow God’s ways, and we come as outsiders, people without the investment of blood, sweat, tears, and money that so many of you have. We pastors come here to an uphill battle right from the word go, and yeah, it can be frustrating, even anger-inducing. 

I think the difference in being a pastor and not a prophet, is that we stick around in one place to care for and be cared by a group of people who share an ideal, to love God and the world around us. At least that’s the goal. So, my heart goes out to poor little angry Amos, who probably didn’t have a group of loving people to support him in his difficult work like I and many pastors do, and at the same time I can relate to him, but let’s focus on him. The book of Amos opens by placing him in his geographical and chronological place of the biblical narrative, but only takes one sentence to do that. Because Amos has some things to say and there’s just no time to beat around the bush. And so, sentence number two opens with a bang! Or a roar. Amos starts with the words, “The Lord roars…” The Lord roars.  

Amos didn’t say the Lord barks like a dog, or meows like a cat, or coos like a dove, it’s not even the piercing shrill of an eagle! It’s the roar of a lion. Why a lion? The easy answer is: top of the food chain. But more than that, if you’re in sub-Saharan Africa, and you hear a lion roar, you better believe that every living being in earshot, will be on alert, will be listening, and you should too, because the possibility of something serious going down just shot up by a factor of ten! Now, this may sound like a strange way to describe God’s voice. I for one would rather talk to a purring cat and that’s saying something cuz I don’t like cats. But a roaring lion? No thanks! But here’s the thing, we don’t get to choose how God sounds. God comes to us however God wants to come to us and our job is first and foremost to shut up and listen!  

And remember, Amos is frustrated because God is frustrated. Hence, a lion. You want a purring cat? Well, don’t get on God’s nerves so much! That’s all I can say. So, God’s people hear a roaring lion from Amos and I’m imagining them being completely clueless, wondering what’s got God’s knickers in such a bunch! I mean, either they were clueless or downright defiant, and I don’t know which is worse, but I just imagine them asking, “What’s God so angry about?” Well, they’re about to find out! First, the charges come from the mouth of Amos, and he’s using his dad voice. You all know that voice? It comes in many other names, the mom voice, the teacher voice, the spousal voice, take your pick. Now, if I was God, and thank God I’m not, but if I was God speaking through Amos, I probably would have said something like, in my dad voice of course, “How many times do I have to tell you this? How many times do we have to have this conversation? I have told you to open your eyes and be on the constant lookout for those in need, and help them! Not only are you not doing that, you’re putting people in need, even your own people!” You see, God was looking around, and seeing who was in need. And God was seeing the people they had cheated out of money due to inequitable taxation. The poor that they were turning away from. Harming those who were actually trying to help, probably because it made them look bad! It wasn’t looking good, but man was it an already old story. Time and time again God had reminded them of God’s ways. Healing the sick. Feeding the poor. Caring for the orphaned and widowed. Seek good and not evil, God said! Hate evil, love good, establish justice, God said! 

Do they listen? Of course not! And we have to wonder why. Why can’t they get their act together? I have a theory! Not that I want to try and let them off the hook, I’m not doing that! But I think it helps to try at least to figure out their behavior so that we can understand our own behavior. Remember, these stories were given to us to relate to and learn from, and not repeat the same mistakes. And this one’s a doozy! But here’s my theory. It’s an old theory, I’m just applying it to Amos and his people. When people live in fear, when people feel like they are being backed into a corner, when people worry about their future, people have a tendency to hold on to what they have tighter! Even tighter than they already do, because that’s what we humans do, accumulate and hold on to it, that’s our default position.  

And that’s what I believe is happening to the people that Amos is trying to reach. They’re scared! They’re feeling threatened by outsiders, which includes Amos in their eyes. They’re worried about their future. Things aren’t turning out the way they thought they would. They’re a mess! And so, serving others is the last thing on their minds! Taking a look around and seeing the needs around them isn’t even occurring to them! Again, it’s that fear response. Not an excuse mind you! But at least it’s a hell of an explanation as to what is going on with these people. Next, the story takes a very interesting turn. All of a sudden, God speaks. God stops speaking through Amos, and we get to hear God’s voice. And if you thought Amos was in a bad mood, well you ain’t heard nothing yet!  

God begins with, “I hate…” Now, let me just pause there and say, for me, growing up, even to this day, if you say the word hate in my dad’s house, he’ll call you out on it! The word hate is just a no-no word in my dad’s house. So, to hear God start a sentence with “I hate” is particularly triggering for me. Even worse though is what God hates. It’s not things like murder or stealing. No, God hates, our festivals, our joyous assemblies, our offerings, our songs and melodies. Hold on, our songs and melodies? That hits a little too close to home, God has gone too far! Say what you want about the rest of it but now you want to take our music from us too! But of course, that’s not what God is saying at all, is it? The last line is the key. 

God ends by saying, “But” one of the biggest buts in scripture by the way, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” You see, it’s not our worship that God has an issue with, it’s the lack of justice that it produces. Let’s use our own recent experience as an example. Singing. Everyone is dying for singing to come back! Ok, why? Has anyone bothered to ask yourself, why you want singing to come back? I won’t embarrass anyone by asking that out loud but here are some of the answers that I think we’d get: Singing makes me feel good. It makes me feel like I’m participating. It makes me feel more worshipful. It makes the effort to get up and get ready and drive here more worth it. 

Now, none of those answers are wrong. But, in light of today’s reading, I can’t help but hear those answers as a bit self-serving. Because I highly doubt we would get answers like these: “Because I want the singing to change my heart and mind.” “Because I want the singing to transform who I am into someone different.” “Because I want the singing to open my eyes to the needs of the world around me.” Because I want the singing to challenge me to answer the prayers and yearnings of the world around me.”  

I don’t think you’d get any of those answers from me if you asked me a few weeks ago! But these prophets man, geez, they just keep pushing, and challenging, and slapping us upside the back of our heads! Not out of malice towards us, but because they knew that God’s prayer, is to have us as coworkers in the fight for justice in the world: food justice, gender justice, racial justice, economic justice. And those waters of justice began at the waters of our baptisms, and end out there somewhere. And God has invited us to take our noses out of our hymnals, look up and see who’s in need, and go. Thanks be to God. Amen.


I'm Not Done

 Inspired by 1 Kings 19:1-18

With today’s Elijah story, we now enter into the time of the prophets. And we will stay with them until the last Sunday of Advent when we will begin our journey through the Gospel of John. The prophets are an interesting group of guys, to put it lightly! They love God and they love their people, they just happen to love them like a cantankerous old uncle that’s lost all their social skills! I’ve always wanted to use the word cantankerous in a sermon! I can check that off now. For those of you who have spent any amount of time with the prophets, especially here every Fall, tell me that isn’t an accurate description of these characters! These guys were not pastors. They just weren’t pastor material. And that’s not an insult. I admire them for their honesty and even their lack of social skills!  

Their love was harsh, rough around the edges, even off-putting. And yes, there’s a place for that for pastors too but pastors also have to know how to love their people gently. And that’s a skill that prophets didn’t have worry about much. And again, I’m kinda jealous! How refreshing it must have been to say what’s on your mind and not have to worry about what people thought or what feelings you might hurt or if you might get fired! Refreshing yes, but it was also stressful, anxiety producing, depression inducing work, as we see in todays reading. And speaking of stress, there was a lot of stress among God’s people at this time in the biblical narrative. After King Solomon died, the kingdom split in two, a northern kingdom, called Israel, and a southern kingdom, known as Judah. And both were filled with political and spiritual strife. 

Each had their own king and most of them were not very good ones. That coupled with a people that were still waffling in their commitment to God, amid surrounding nations that were just waiting for an opportunity to pounce on them, and they had a recipe for disaster. This is where the prophets come in. They were there to try and get these two kingdoms back on the straight and narrow. They were there to warn them of the consequences of their bad behavior. We think of prophets and we often think of fortune-telling prophecies but that kind of work was only about one percent of their job. Most of their work, was speaking truth to power, and reminding them of God’s promises, as well as the promises that they’d made to God. Needless to say, they didn’t have many friends. 

These prophets were mighty characters, each a force to be reckoned with, but they were not perfect by any means. They were human, and sometimes they overstepped. And that is where Elijah finds himself in today’s story. You see, right before this story, Elijah had a big throw down with Jezebel’s prophets, she was the queen of Israel but of course, of another religion with her own prophets. Now, that might not sound like a big deal to us. I’m guessing most of you are pretty accepting of other religions. I mean, I don’t mind telling people that I love Jesus and why, but if they don’t agree they don’t agree. Whatever brings them happiness and makes them a better human being is fine with me. But in Elijah’s day, that kind of thinking just didn’t fly. There was no room for religious tolerance! 

So, Elijah defeats Jezebel’s prophets in this big test to see whose God would answer them, but where Elijah oversteps is when after he wins, he murders all of Jezebel’s prophets. God never asked him to do that. And so now, he is on the run. Jezebel wants his head and so he runs to the southern kingdom, outside of Jezebel and King Ahab’s jurisdiction. He finds himself in the wilderness, at Mount Horeb, the same mountain that God’s people found themselves at after fleeing Egypt, the same mountain where God spoke to Moses. Coincidence, I think not. Elijah finds himself a solitary broom bush, and lays down in utter defeat, in the throes of a major depressive episode, hoping death would come to relieve him. My heart goes out to him, and to all who have been in that state of mind, and the people who walk that road with them. 

It’s at that point that a voice tells him to get up and eat. Elijah opens his eyes and sees food before him. So, he gets up and eats and then goes back to sleep. Again, the voice tells him to get up and eat because his journey ahead will be difficult. Oddly enough, Elijah doesn’t question this but a moment ago he wanted to die, there was no journey ahead for him in his mind. But he gets up and eats anyway. Forty days and forty nights go by, where have you heard that before? Again, not a coincidence! Elijah than finds a cave on Mount Horeb and spends the night there. Let’s pause here a moment and process what’s going on here so far. Elijah runs for the hills, afraid for his life, ends up in the wilderness like his ancestors before him, is at the lowest of lows, and what does God do? Feeds him. God feeds him.  

As bad as the wilderness may be, it’s also a place of nourishment. And isn’t that always the way with God. Looking for every opportunity to flip the script! To enter the scene with small mercies when you least expect it. Because I’m sure Elijah wasn’t just running from Jezebel but also from God too. Remember, God didn’t ask him to kill all those prophets. But not only is God merciful, God isn’t going to give our own bad behavior the power to get in God’s way. God’s will will be done one way or another. Even in spite of us.  

And now, think of your own lives and the various wilderness places that life has taken you, places where you feared for your own life or livelihood at least, places of fear, places of shame, places of existential crisis, places of spiritual crisis, or a wilderness that has no easy label. Were their places of nourishment there, no matter how small? I’m guessing there were, if your places of wilderness were anything like mine. 

So, after forty days and forty nights, God asks, “Why are you here, Elijah?” Elijah rattles off a list of woes, as if God doesn’t know them. And almost as if God ignores Elijah’s little list, God’s only response is to tell him to step outside his little cave because God was about to pass by. Elijah complies, and a great wind tears through the mountainside, so strong it rips right through the stones! Surely that must be what God looks and sound like! Nope. Then a powerful earthquake shook the ground! Surely that must be what God feels like! Nope. Then a terrifying fire sweeps through the land! Surely that must be God! Wouldn’t be the first time! Nope. And then there was a sound, thin, quiet, like a whisper. And God says, “Why are you here, Elijah?” And it’s at this point I have to laugh every time I read this! 

Look, I’m a very sarcastic, dark humor kinda person, and so maybe that’s why I laugh here, but I can’t help but hear a sarcastic, almost comical tone to God’s little whisper! I mean, all those theatrics just to repeat the same question that God asked before? “Why are you here, Elijah?” And then, as if to continue the comical tone, God’s question goes right over Elijah’s head, and he rattles off the exact same little list of woes that he rattled off the first time God asked him why he was there! This time, God responds differently, and with less theatrics. God tells him to go back. He doesn’t offer any comfort, which is what you might have expected. To be fair though, God had already fed him, God had already taken care of him for the past forty days and forty nights. So, instead of putting an arm around his shoulder and telling him everything’s gonna be alright, God tells him to go back. 

God tells him to go back and anoint a new king in the neighboring nation of Aram, anoint a new king in Israel, and anoint a new prophet to succeed himself. Now, giving Elijah more work to do might sound a bit cold and uncaring right about now but this is dripping with grace! This was God’s way of saying to Elijah, and to all of God’s people, I’m not done! I’m not done! I know you are ashamed Elijah but I’m still here! I know you tried running away, Elijah, but I ran with you! I know you’re tired of living Elijah, but I have fed and will continue to feed you! I know things haven’t turned out the way you had imagined, but I’m not done! I’m not done! And if God isn’t done, how can we be! 

These tables that surround us today, with all these beautiful pictures of lost loved ones, glowing with their light that still shines on us to this very day, bring a host of emotions, filled with good memories, and painful memories, hope, and grief. This Elijah story reminds us that these tables also represent moments in our lives when God whispered to us, “I’m not done. I’m not done.” And that is not said to dismiss our pain and grief, but to make sure that a healthy dose of future hope is present as well, as nourishment for the journey ahead. And this applies to all kinds of wilderness experiences.  

The very personal kind. The family kind. The vocational kind. The church kind. Look, church life hasn’t turned out the way I imagined it would either. I remember full sanctuaries and overflowing Sunday school classrooms, and big confirmation classes too. I remember planning events and not having to worry about who is even going to show up to it. I remember balanced budgets. I wish I could tell you what the future holds, I wish I could tell you everything will be alright. What I can tell you is what God told Elijah, and what All Saints Sunday reminds us year in and year out. God’s not done. God’s not done. Say it with me, God’s not done. God’s not done. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Healthy Communication at Church

Christmas is next month. Did that just stress you out? Sorry, that was cruel. But it is that time of year, when stress begins to slowly escalate. And like last year, COVID seems to escalate the escalation. Masks, physical distancing, bills, existing debt, upcoming Christmas debt, family, travel, work, school, need I go on? And with holiday stress comes a need to keep our emotions/behaviors/reactions in check. So, what better time for a reminder on how best to communicate our needs, especially at church! I mean, shouldn’t the church be a leader in healthy communication practices? If you answered yes to that question, please read on!

Let’s start with how not to communicate at church. That way we can end on a positive note! So, here are a few ways we do not communicate at church, as the leaders in healthy communication that we are:

·       We do not communicate with our absence. As a pastor, there is nothing more disheartening than having a parishioner leave and having no idea why because they never said a word. Their leaving was the communication. I hear people all the time say that they come to church because it’s like family to them. So, would this kind of communication fly in your family? If a parent left for work one day and never came back, wouldn’t we expect some sort of explanation/communication? Of course! Why not in a church family?

·       We do not communicate with our checkbooks. So many times, without words, people will communicate their displeasure over something by decreasing or stopping their financial support. Aside from how unbiblical this is, it’s a clear case of shooting oneself in the foot. Without financial support, churches choke to death. That can’t be their intention, right? I hope not, because that would be abuse, of the self-harm kind. I’ve known too many churches who have lost key staff, even their pastor, because the church could no longer afford their salary. And then who suffers? Not the pastor or staff, the cold hard truth is that there are always other churches for them to find work. It’s the congregation left behind that struggles to pick up the pieces.

·       We do not communicate indirectly. Otherwise known as triangulation. We’ve all experienced this from some angle. It’s when a person says something to another person about a gripe of some kind, hoping that the complaint will get to the person that can actually help, instead of going directly to them. That’s triangulation, and it’s so unhealthy, not to mention destructive, because it is disrespectful and dismissive of the leadership. Power structures vary by church and denomination. In my church, the fastest way to make something happen, is go directly to the pastor. I’ve had people say, “I love when you put an image on the screen during your sermons. We should do that every Sunday!” Done. “Can we adopt a family with the local UU church for Christmas?” Done. I’m not saying I’ll always say yes, I’m just saying there’s no faster way to a yes! (And I hate to tell people no! But you didn’t hear that from me!)

·       We do not communicate with threats. If you find yourself communicating by threatening to leave or withhold your offerings or volunteer time, then you have skipped some vital communication steps along the way. It amazes me how quickly people seem to jump to threats. But in reality, it’s not quick at all, not usually. It’s the product of long-held misgivings that have been festering for quite some time. All because of a lack of desire to communicate them much earlier in the process. How do you respond to threats? Pastors and lay leaders respond the same, not well. More often than not, it doesn’t go the way you think it’s gonna go. Worse yet, threats can do irreparable damage to relationships.

So, what do we do when we have issues, concerns, complaints at church?


Communicate with words!

Communicate early!

Communicate often!

Communicate directly!

Communicate lovingly!

Communicate healthily!

Your pastor and church leaders love you so much! They could not do what they do if they didn’t! They have sacrificed so much for you! Love them by practicing healthy communication at church…and everywhere! Think of it as your Christmas gift to them during these stressful times we all have to endure!

Thank you for reading. And thank you for all you do to keep church going. We couldn’t do it without you! And we wouldn’t want to.


Beautiful Darkness

 Inspired by 1 Kings 5:1-5; 8:1-13

Last week we read the call of David, king 2.0, that did not go as planned, since he turned out to be just as corrupt as the previous king. This week we get king 3.0, Solomon, in the hopes that this king will get things right! Third times a charm, so they say! So how did that turn out? Well, this story that I just read gives us a taste of that answer but before we get into all that, it must be said that God really liked Solomon. But God also liked David, the murderous, idolatrous, sexual predator that he was. I don’t know if you’ve picked up on this, but God likes bad people! Or at least those that we would label as “bad people.” I mean, think about it, what do we do with murderers and sex offenders? We imprison them, we isolate them, they are outcasts for the rest of their lives in some form or another. Not God, God makes them kings! 

Now, I don’t what that says about us, but I know someone else that had a soft spot for the undesirables…Jesus did! We all know that he didn’t seek out the rich and famous or the most devout. He spent his time with what they called “the sinners” back then, the cheaters, the drinkers, the thieves, the poor, the terminally ill, all the people that no one wanted anything to do with. That’s a long pattern of behavior, from the way God is presented in the Hebrew scriptures to Jesus, and I have a feeling the Holy Spirit operates the same way today. I’d put good money on that! But let’s get back to Solomon. So, Solomon wasn’t directly chosen by God, he just took the throne when his dad died, but that seems to have been what God wanted. God also wanted Solomon to be a better king than his dad was but as my dad always says, if wishes were horses, we’d all be riding! 

On the surface, Solomon seems to be doing good work but if you take a closer look you’ll see he too has succumbed to some bad behaviors. First off, the passage opens with him allying himself with a neighboring king, even though Solomon was given explicit instructions not to mix with people of other religions. Solomon ignores that. Next, we didn’t read this part but Solomon basically uses slave labor to build his palace and temple. And where does he get his labor force from? His own people. He literally worked them to death. He was remembered by them as being even harsher than David was on the common folk. Solomon was also given explicit warnings against increasing his number of horses, increasing his wealth, and increasing his number of wives.  

Guess what, he does all three, and quite flagrantly I might add. I mean, he was known far and wide for all his wealth and women that he had around him. He didn’t even try to hide it! But these weren’t the worst of his transgressions, at least not in God’s eyes. He ended up, not just worshipping other gods, but building temples for them, under the guise of it being for his wives and their religions. Well, that was the last straw for God, and as you may remember, the kingdom splits shortly after his death. So, another bad king, and this one has grave consequences for the kingdom. But not before a temple is built for God, which is what our story for today centers on. And this temple comes with some surprises of its own, because as we’ve seen time and time again, God will not be told what to do.  

God will do things God’s own way. And as Lisa mentioned at Bible study the other day, sometimes God just does that on purpose! Sometimes God just does that as a reminder that we are not in charge here, as much as we might like to think so! So, Solomon builds this temple but don’t let him fool you, he may have said that he did this for God but this was all for him, this temple, like his palace, was yet another gemstone in the crown sitting on his very large head. Now let’s pause here and step aside from this story and into today, because what this brings to my mind is not only our temples that we build, but also the worship that goes on in them. As a pastor, I get to see both the most beautiful moments that our worship brings us, and the not so beautiful moments. And I often wonder if we lose sight of who or what we are actually worshipping. 

Do we come to this place ready and willing to allow God to work on us however God chooses to? Or do we come here hoping to just feel better about ourselves? Now, don’t get me wrong, both can happen, but not always. Look, I’m gonna be brutally honest with you here. When people leave the church because we don’t meet their expectations, because we don’t do things the way they’d like, the way they grew up, because their preferences aren’t met, I have a really hard time not questioning their priorities! If you are coming here, with yourself as the main focus, as the main need, I’m just afraid you’re gonna leave unsatisfied more often than not! And so, it’s no wonder so many people leave their churches for some of the strangest reasons! Solomon was in it for himself. And that didn’t turn out so well. Don’t be like Solomon.  

Let’s keep moving because that can be very challenging, and I don’t like to leave you without any good news. First, a question, how do you like the cover of the bulletin? I picked out that image all by myself, you don’t like it? And how about our image up on the screen? How many of you thought Jesha just forgot to put it up? Nope. That’s it! Beautiful, isn’t it?
Ok, ok, what’s this all about, pastor? It’s all about the last line of our Bible story. Solomon said, “Lord, you said that you would live in a dark cloud, but I have indeed built you a lofty temple as a place where you can live forever.” It’s always trouble when a sentence begins with, “Lord, you said” and ends with, “but.” That never ends well. God said that God would live in a dark cloud, but Solomon insisted on putting God in a big, glowing temple. So, let’s talk about darkness.

We have a tendency in our society to deem anything dark as something bad, as something negative, from the color of a person’s skin to a dark room. Did you know that even black dogs are much less likely to be adopted than dogs of any other color? Isn’t that the silliest thing you’ve ever heard? It’s even got a name, black dog syndrome! Look it up if you don’t believe me! As a society we have a serious issue with all things dark! And yet, that is where God chooses to live, in the dark. I love the way that on the first worship service of the new temple, it’s so dark inside that the priests can’t even do their jobs. If that isn’t God telling us that we’re not in charge here I don’t know what is. But more than that, I think it’s also telling us something about this darkness that we seem to be so afraid of. 

Today is Halloween. Yeah, I know it’s also Reformation Day, but even Luther wouldn’t want a worship service all about him. I think even on a day like today, he would want the good news preached, because he knew, unlike Solomon and the many people who leave churches when they don’t get their way, it’s not all about him! It’s about a loving God who shows up in the most unlikely of places, which is why I love Halloween so much. Halloween embraces the darkness.  

It is not afraid of it, it does not shy away from it. In the same way, my own tradition has Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Talk about something our society doesn’t like to talk about, death! Oh my goodness, do we have issues regarding death, don’t we! But that’s not the case in all cultures. Many Asian cultures have a healthy relationship with death. All we see is darkness when we think of death, but others see joy and hope, or at the very least, appreciate the acknowledgment of the darkness. 

Because for many, the darkness is not always joy and hope. For many, the darkness really does represent their pain and struggle. And Halloween, Dia de los Muertos, and All Saints Day, can all be ways that we acknowledge the real darkness and pain in people’s lives. My youngest daughter Jesha and I share a lot in common where music is concerned. One of the genres that we recently discovered we both like is heavy metal, even some death metal. Over the past year I have noticed that a common theme in the music that I appreciate is any music that has an honest, less negative approach to darkness, whether I’m listening to Motown, electronic 80’s music, or metal. I think it’s why I love Halloween, Dia de los Muertos, and All Saints Day so much.  

They’re all opportunities to look the darkness in the face, to look death in the face, and embrace it, give it a hug, without so much fear. Why? Because that’s where God lives. That’s where God chooses to live. And if God is there, then it must not all be bad. I hope you find as much comfort in that as I do. Whether your present darkness brings you joy or pain, whether it brings you hope or fear, whether it brings you peace or sadness, know most assuredly that God is there with you. God thrives in the darkness! So much so that God has chosen to live there. And so, for future reference, when you see darkness on the horizon, no matter what else it may bring, good or bad, remember that it also means that God is on the way. Amen.