Giants vs. Grasshoppers, Numbers 14:1-10

“Giants vs. Grasshoppers” is not a metaphor for Kentucky vs. Hampton in the NCAA tournament, and yes I know there is no mention of giants or grasshoppers in Numbers 14 – but I promise you they will show up soon.

We are still in the murmuring/complaining section of the Hebrew’s wilderness journey, but before you complain about how long we’ve been there during this Lenten season, let me assure you that we’re almost finished. The Hebrews are now on the banks of the Jordan River, in sight of the land God has promised them – but that has not stopped the complaining, it has in fact raised the level from murmuring to murderous threats against their leaders.

To understand this new level of frustration, we have to go back and see what happened in chapter 13. When the Israelites finally near their destination after 40 long years in the wilderness they discover that there are already people living in their promised land. And just as the Israeli’s and Palestinians today have very different opinions about whose land this is, we’ve got a problem. So Moses and Aaron decide to send some spies across the river to scope out the situation and see how big a problem there is. They pick 12 men, one from each of the 12 tribes, to do reconnaissance, and when they return from their mission, the spies have good news and bad news. The land is indeed fertile and beautiful, just as God has promised, but the bad news is the current occupants are very powerful. And here’s where we hear about the giants and grasshoppers. The vast majority of the spies agree that the people living in the promised land are an overwhelming foe and to take them on would be like grasshoppers going battle against an army of Giants.

And that’s where Chapter 14 picks up the story. The whole congregation we are told raises a loud cry and weeps. They ask Moses, again, “Why have you brought us here to die by the sword? Our wives and children will become booty. Let’s choose a captain and go back to Egypt.”

Isn’t that how we often feel in the wilderness? When we think we’ve almost achieved a hard fought goal and someone else gets the promotion, or a serious illness derails our plans for retirement, or a tragic accident turns a family’s life upside down. Granted we may need to cut the Israelites some slack. Remember these poor people have been traveling in difficult circumstances for 40 years! To realize how long that is, think about how long ago 1975 was. Diana and I were on a trip two years ago to China and our return trip involved flights from Shanghai to Beijing to New York, and then an 11 hour bus ride back to Columbus. All tolled we were traveling without a break for 36 hours, and I can tell you we were not the happiest of campers. I can’t imagine 40 years!!!

Sometimes when a goal seems impossible – when the mountain is just too high to climb, when our patience and endurance are at the breaking point, we just want to throw in the towel and give up. Take us back to Egypt – things were better there. Really? Sometimes memory plays tricks on us. There was a book out a few years ago titled The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, by Stephanie Coontz. One of the things Coontz says in her book is that while we tend to romanticize the 1950’s as a period of peace and prosperity before all the turmoil and conflicts of the 60’s and 70’s, we forget how oppressed women and minorities were, and that beneath the façade of domestic tranquility there was a hidden unrest. Coontz’s evidence for that is that valium and other popular drugs for depression and anxiety came into widespread use during that decade. It wasn’t all “Ozzie and Harriet” or “Leave it to Beaver.”

Fear distorts our memories of how things were in the past. As the theme song from the movie “The Way We Were” says, “What’s too painful to remember, we sometimes choose to forget.” That’s what happens to the Hebrews. They are so disappointed and fearful about the challenges and obstacles they see before them, they are ready to give up when they are so close but so far from their goal. Someone once told me that there are no trophies for running a 99 yard dash – you have to finish the race to win the prize.

We’ve also noticed in these murmuring chapters in Numbers that complaining is contagious. The text says, “The Whole Congregation” is ready to give up. When I was a kid and wanted something my friends had – a new toy or the coolest clothes – or if I wanted to go somewhere that I knew my parents probably would not approve of, I would often tell my mother, “But everybody else has one! All the other kids at school are going!” Her response was often, “Name Three.” And more times than not I couldn’t. End of discussion. So do you think “the whole congregation” might be an exaggeration?

Actually we know it is, because among the 12 spies there is a minority report. Two of the twelve, Caleb and Joshua, have a different take on the situation. They have seen the same evidence as the other 10. They all agree the land is flowing with milk and honey and would be a great place to settle. They all agree the people living there are a formidable problem. But Joshua and Caleb come from a perspective of faith instead of fear. They say, “If God is pleased with us – if we don’t rebel against the Lord, God will deliver on his promise. If God is on our side, nothing else matters.”

And how do the people respond? Verse 10 says, “The whole congregation threatened to stone them.” Dreamers, visionaries and prophets often meet with that kind of reaction – think Copernicus or Galileo. Psychologists explain it this way. When someone has a vision of reality that is very different from ours it creates what is called cognitive dissonance, which is just a fancy way of saying discomfort because things don’t line up the way we think they should. That can create fear and the need to do something to relieve the dissonance.

For example, we can choose to just ignore the problem, as in denial of climate change. Or we can remove ourselves from the situation–end a relationship, quit a job, move to a new home, etc. But on rare occasions where the dissonance is extremely high, things can turn violent, and history is full of martyrs like Jesus, Gandhi, and Joan of Arc, Lincoln, Martin Luther King and many less famous ones who have met that fate. And that’s what Caleb and Joshua are facing on the banks of the Jordan. If you read on in Numbers you will discover that God is much happier with Caleb and Joshua’s faithful response than the 10 other spies and the rebellious congregation. Because of their fear and complaining none of the latter group will be allowed to enter the promised land, but Caleb and Joshua are rewarded for their courage and faith and lead the new generation at last to their new home.

I was talking with a woman a few weeks ago who was dealing with a terrible family crisis. She was feeling like a grasshopper facing gigantic new challenges. When I suggested she just take things one day at a time and break the problems down into smaller pieces, she said, “I know, Steve, I tell other people that all the time. But I can’t live that way. I have to be in control and know what’s going to happen.” That’s the way we all would like life to be, but it simply isn’t.

And because it isn’t we all need faith and the support of others who are facing the giants with us. One of the problems with us rugged individualistic Americans is that we aren’t good at showing our own vulnerabilities and letting others in. We keep up a good front even when we’re dying on the inside. Another old Barbra Streisand song, “People,” describes that situation very well:

“We’re children, needing other children
And yet letting a grown-up pride
Hide all the need inside
Acting more like children than children.”

I was listening to a webinar the other day about transitions in life and was struck by a comment from Robert C. (Bob) Atchley, Distinguished Professor of Gerontology (emeritus) from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, who said, “All of life is Assisted-Living.” Think about how true that is. We use that term “assisted-living” to describe a level of care for elderly people, but it describes all of life. None of us would have come into life or survived infancy and childhood without someone to care for us and teach us. But somewhere along the line we get the notion that we don’t need parents anymore telling us what to do. We move out into the wilderness of adolescence and adulthood on our own, yearning for independence and self-sufficiency. That personal quest is a necessary part of growing up and sometimes it feels great, but when faced with giants, it feels oh so very lonely.

Feeling alone and isolated in the wilderness is a major theme in the movie “Into the Woods.” The song “No one Is Alone,” sung by the Baker and Cinderella, both of whom have suffered terrible losses in the woods, addresses that issue this way:

“Maybe we forgot: they are not alone.
No one is alone.
Hard to see the light now.
Just don’t let it go
Things will come out right now.
We can make it so.
Someone is on your side
No one is alone.”

People of faith know who is on our side. And people of faith also know that we need to be there for each other. Jimmy, a little boy was scared one night by a thunder storm raging outside his bedroom window. When his father came into his room to comfort him he assured him by reminding him that he had learned in Sunday school that Jesus was always with him. Jimmy said, “yes, I know that Dad, but sometimes I just need someone with skin on them.” We need to be those skin-covered people for each other, especially in the wilderness times of life, but if we pretend we don’t need each other, thinking that we can avoid our problems by ignoring them – we cut ourselves off from the very support we need.

I want to finish today by talking about another kind of wilderness experience – one that is voluntary. When we think of the wilderness we often think of it as times of crisis, dealing with unexpected problems, but the wilderness can also be a time of intentional withdrawal from the distractions of daily living to get a better perspective on life – to see the bigger picture. Lent is a good time to do that, but any season of our lives will work. Someone once told me it’s hard to remember that your goal is to drain the swamp when you are up to your waist in alligators. Times of solitude for prayer and refection are needed when we get out of the swamp and see the bigger picture to remember or clarify what our purpose in life really is.

That’s not easy. We are all busy with multitudes of responsibilities. We need to intentionally build time into our schedules regularly to stop and evaluate where we are on life’s journey, to make mid-course corrections, to let go of regrets, guilt, grudges and other burdens that weigh us down. This is especially important at critical times that are rites of passage from one stage of life to another – adolescence to young adulthood, mid-life crises, career changes, new relationships, empty nesting, and retirement. Rather than jumping from one phase of life to another the way our culture says we “should,” taking time off to reflect on what God wants us to be and do is critical.

There is no need to be afraid of choosing to go to the wilderness because no one is alone. We journey with an eternal God who ultimately conquers all giants. Time in the wilderness is time to sort out priorities about the legacy we truly want to leave for future generations; to remember our real goal in life isn’t more stuff and wealth. The legacy we want to leave is faith and values for a life that is truly abundant in the deepest meaning of that term. Our real promised land is a life of peace that passes human understanding, and reaching that goal comes from saying “no” to the majority, who let fear rob them of their goal, and trusting and obeying the still small voice of God that says “put your money on the grasshoppers.”

Preached at Northwest United Methodist Church, Columbus, Ohio, March 22, 2015

Human and Divine Collaboration, Judges 4:1-7

I preached this sermon at Northwest UMC on November 16, 2014

As is often the case in the biblical narrative, in Judges 4 Israel is in deep do do, and this time even deeper than usual. The enemy threatening Israel this time is not Kent State or Indiana. The Canaanites are not some distant enemy as previous foes in the era of the judges have been – these are next door neighbors, and they are armed as no foe of Israel’s has ever been armed before – with 900 chariots of iron. Those chariots indicate a big change historically as humankind is moving from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. There were benefits to those changes, but it also meant people had bigger and better ways to kill each other.

In the midst of all that change there is a predictable pattern to this story that readers of earlier chapters of Judges have seen before. 1. Ehud, the former judge has died. The judges were a series of leaders of Israel during the period before the monarchy was established. They were prophets, spokespeople for God, and when a vacuum in that leadership occurred with Ehud’s death Israel again goes astray. It’s a classic ‘when the cats away the mice will play’ scenario. The text tells us simply that Israel did evil, which leads to step two in the pattern. 2. Bad things happen. The text says “God sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan.” I don’t believe God is a puppeteer who directly causes bad things to punish wayward people; we have freedom of choice. But I do believe there is a natural order to things that results in painful consequences when we are unfaithful to God’s will.

When there is a lack of leadership and vision, as Proverbs tells us, the people of God perish. And when we are in trouble we come to phase 3 in the pattern, we cry out to God to save us. And (4) God raises up a new leader or leaders who help save the day.

When I first looked at this lectionary passage my first reaction was to look elsewhere for a text – especially when I read the rest of Chapter 4 which is full of more twists and turns than a Cedar Point roller coaster. But then as I thought about Ebola and ISIS and some of the other messes our world is in I realized this pattern is still with us today. When we forget God’s ways we face seemingly insurmountable problems. What do we do when that happens? It seems to me we need to do two things: (1) we need to admit we’ve got a problem, and (2) we need to ask for help from other people and from God.

When our granddaughter Kaitlyn was a baby her parents taught her some very simple baby sign language. Most of the signs were pretty obvious – like one for “I’m hungry,” or “no more,” but my favorite was the one for “I don’t know.” There’s a ton of stuff a one-year old doesn’t know, and they aren’t hung up on pretending they know things they don’t. So I would play a game asking Kaitlyn questions I knew she would not be able to answer, and she would laugh and do the sign for “I don’t know.” Why is it that as we get older we are reluctant to ask for directions or to ask for help with some question or project that is beyond our scope of experience or expertise? Judges tells us that King Jabin had oppressed the Israelites cruelly for 20 years before they realized they better ask God for help!

Rugged individualists that we are, and this may be more of a male problem, I admit, we often add time and stress to a job by our reluctance to simply admit, “I don’t know.” One of my favorite stories about that kind of attitude is described in this letter from a man writing to his insurance company to explain an insurance claim:

“I am writing in response to your request for more information concerning block #11 on the insurance form which asks for “cause of injuries” wherein I put “trying to do the job alone”. You said you need more information, so I trust the following will be sufficient.

I am a bricklayer by trade and on the day of the injuries, I was working alone laying bricks around the top of a four story building when I realized that I had about 500 pounds of bricks left over. Rather than carry the bricks down by hand, I decided to put them into a barrel and lower them by a pulley which was fastened to the top of the building. I secured the end of the rope at ground level and went up to the top of the building and loaded the bricks into the barrel and swung the barrel out with the bricks in it. I then went down and untied the rope, holding it securely to insure the slow descent of the barrel.

As you will note on block #6 of the insurance form, I weigh 145 pounds. Due to my shock at being jerked off the ground so swiftly, I lost my presence of mind and forgot to let go of the rope. Between the second and third floors, I met the barrel coming down. This accounts for the bruises and lacerations on my upper body.
Regaining my presence of mind, I held tightly to the rope and proceeded rapidly up the side of the building, not stopping until my right hand was jammed in the pulley. This accounts for the broken thumb.

Despite the pain, I retained my presence of mind and held tightly on to the rope. At approximately the same time, however, the barrel of bricks hit the ground and the bottom fell out of the barrel. Devoid of the weight of the bricks, the barrel now weighted about 50 pounds. I again refer you to block #6 and my weight.

As you would guess I began a rapid descent. In the vicinity of the second floor, I met the barrel coming up. This explains the injuries to my legs and lower body. Slowed only slightly, I continued my descent landing on the pile of bricks. Fortunately, my back was only sprained and the internal injuries were minimal.

I am sorry to report, however, that at this point, I finally lost my presence of mind and let go of the rope, and as you can imagine, the empty barrel crashed down on me.

I trust this answers your concern. Please know that I am finished “trying to do the job alone”.

Back to our Scripture: Deborah appears as the next Judge of Israel, and she is the one to whom the Israelites finally turn to for advice. She summons a general named Barak – did you catch that? I’m not making that up, that’s what it says in verse 6. So no matter what your political preferences, don’t get hung up on his name. Barak is just one of God’s agents in this drama. Deborah gives him explicit directions on how to confront the Canaanites, who, where, when, how, and promises him that God will deliver Jabin into his hands.

If the story ends there it would be sort of like a very predictable Hallmark movie. Sure, God wins, God always wins, with or without our cooperation; but whom God uses and what happens along the way raises some surprising and difficult questions. In the verses immediately after Deborah guarantees Barak a victory, he says a curious thing, Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” And Deborah said, “I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the LORD will sell Sisera (Jabin’s Commanding General) into the hand of a woman.” (Judges 4:8-9)

If someone guaranteed you success at a difficult task that would save your people and make you a great hero or heroine, wouldn’t you do it? Barak’s refusal to go without Deborah raises questions the story doesn’t answer. Is he insecure about his own leadership ability? Is he lacking in faith that God will truly prevail against this powerful enemy? We don’t know, and Deborah’s reply only adds to the intrigue. She says, OK I’ll go, but you aren’t going to get the glory – a woman is.

In the sexist world of that time, that could be a real put down. A real leader wouldn’t need help and certainly not from a woman. But as a judge, Deborah is God’s representative –maybe Barak just wants her along as assurance of god’s presence. We don’t know. We also may think we know that Deborah is tooting her own horn, assuming she is the woman in question who will get the glory for this victory. Don’t jump to that conclusion too quickly.

The battle with Sisera’s army is waged and it’s like Pharaoh’s army at the Red sea – no contest. Verse 16 says, “All the army of Sisera fell by the sword; no one was left.” But here comes the next twist in this tale – one person did escape we are told. Sisera jumped down from his iron chariot and fled on foot, He seeks refuge in the tent of a non-Israelite woman named Jael, who is the wife of an ally of King Jabin.

Warning, here’s where the story gets a bit R-rated but not in the way you may be thinking. Neither Sisera nor Jael have romance in mind. He is just looking for a safe place to hide, and Jael, even though she is not an Israelite, welcomes him according to the customs of hospitality for strangers we find in Hebrew Scriptures. She shelters him, covers him with a rug, and gives him a drink of milk. And then when he falls asleep she turns on him in a most inhospitable and brutally murders him by driving a tent peg into his temple.

What are we followers of the Prince of Peace supposed to do with that gory detail? As my granddaughter would say, “I don’t know.” But at least one mystery is solved – Jael shows Barak what she has done, and we realize that she is the woman into whose hands Sisera has been delivered, not Deborah. But the bigger mystery of why Jael did what she did is left unanswered. Barak and Deborah just sing a victory song and give thanks to God for delivering them from their enemy. And we the readers are left to wrestle with the moral dilemma of whether the ends justify the means, even when God has ordained the victory.

The ambiguity is because the Bible is not an answer book. It is an interactive narrative of God’s actions in human history. Issues are raised in Scripture that are uncertain and complicated because life is complex. God’s middle name is ambiguity because there is always something mysterious about God’s nature that will forever be beyond the grasp of our finite minds. In our human condition we will always see in a mirror dimly.

But having said that there are some lessons we can draw from this curious story. This is a story about human and divine collaboration. Deborah, Barak and Jael all three play critical roles in this story, but none of the three can claim total credit for the victory. All of them contributed and the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Harry Truman once said, “We can accomplish great things if no one is worried about who gets the credit,” and that’s what happens here. Like any team effort, the contributions of every player are necessary for success. Imagine the scientific and international collaboration it took to land a spacecraft on a comet 300 million miles away!

A second take away from this story is that God uses unexpected actors to accomplish God’s goals. And not just in this story. God is very consistent. No matter whom God taps to carry the ball at any given time – uneducated fishermen, tax collectors and prostitutes, adulterous kings or sneaky self-centered rascals like Jacob – God wins. When God sends a redeemer to deliver Israel from the exile in Babylon, God doesn’t choose an Israelite – but Cyrus, King of Persia, as in modern day Iran! And the ultimate redeemer – because we know the story so well we forget what a surprise that peasant kid born in a barn was.

God wins – always – but that does not eliminate the need for human responsibility and accountability. We can’t just sit back and wait for God to take care of us. Deborah promises Barak the victory, but he still has to round up his troops and confront the enemy. God’s ultimate victory is a given. The question is when that victory comes will we be among those on God’s side. If we want to be part of the victory we have to do our part.

To be sure that happens we need to be open to God’s leaders from unexpected places. Like Deborah, a female leader, heretofore unheard of in the Hebrew Scriptures where Noah and Moses and the patriarchs are always the prime actors. Judges is a book full of strong women, and sometimes, like men, they make mistakes or behave in questionable ways, like Delilah or Jael in this story. But the point is that God can use us all if we are willing to trust and obey what we believe God is calling us to do as best we can discern.

And that’s the final lesson learned here. Human collaboration and shared leadership is necessary and sorely needed in our day. To say the least I am skeptical but still praying for collaboration and compromise to break out in Washington D.C. instead of the partisan bickering and backstabbing that accomplishes nothing. To achieve that dream more than human collaboration is needed. Collaboration with the will of God that supersedes human pettiness and selfishness is required if we are to face the complex issues our nation and world must confront.

We need leaders with vision who speak the will of God. Who are those leaders today? Look in the mirror, it might be you! Pray and really listen to what God is asking you to do to make a difference. We spend so much of our prayer time telling God things God already knows instead of listening for what God wants us to know.

When we take time to listen to God, even in the midst of all life’s challenges we can embrace the mystery of God wrapped in faithful assurance of the ultimate outcome. We can dwell in God’s peace that passes human understanding that enables us to act faithfully without knowing the details of what happens in short run because we do know who holds the future.

Life is like a game of tag. When God taps us and says “You’re it!” we can say like Barak, “Yes, Lord, I’ll go, but you have to go with me.” And God will.

“Fear: False Evidence Appearing Real,” I Kings 19:1-15

I have a few moments in life that are free of fear and worry – I call them moments of sheer panic. But with God’s help, there’s another name for such moments – we call them “peace.”

Travelers insurance ran a series of TV commercials a few years ago about fear. One of my favorites showed a bunch of cute bunnies who are confronted by a very large menacing rattle snake. We see the panic in their little rabbit eyes. But then something strange happens. The rabbits all start laughing hysterically, and as the camera pans around to show a full view of the snake, we see why. Instead of a real rattle, this snake has a pink baby rattle duct taped to his tail. And the announcer says, “Let Travelers take the scary out of life.”

With all due respect to any of you who are in the insurance industry – we can’t really take the scary out of life thru any kind of financial instruments. We even call our investments “securities.” But as we know from the recent roller coaster recession, they aren’t always. I hasten to add that we all need insurance because insurance can take some of the pain out of accidents and life events. When Hurricane Ike took half the roof off our house a couple of years ago we were very glad to have coverage that paid most of the cost of putting a roof back over our heads. But any time we get high winds and ominous skies and the tornado sirens are wailing, it’s still scary.

I even read in the Columbus Dispatch recently that you can now buy divorce insurance. Honest, I’m not making that up. What a great wedding gift for the couple that has everything? Sort of seems like betting against your own team, doesn’t it? I’ll check with Pete Rose about that next time I see him.

The problem is that it’s not insurance we need, its assurance. We all know money can’t buy happiness (even though we keep trying). Well, you can’t buy peace of mind either. That’s putting trust in things that “thieves can steal and rust and moths can consume,” – to quote Jesus in Matthew 6. Nothing that’s finite and material can give us peace because none of that stuff will last forever.

I mentioned the prophet Elijah in my Ash Wednesday post on “Transfiguration” a few weeks ago, and his story is worth a deeper look for what it can teach us. I Kings 19 tells how Elijah learned up close and personal how scary and uncertain life can be. Remember the job description for a ‘prophet’ in the Bible is not a fortune teller, but someone who speaks God’s truth to powerful people who need to hear it, and who usually don’t want to. It’s not a job for sissies. To understand Elijah’s fear, we need the back story that precedes chapter 19. In those chapters Elijah gets engaged in a super bowl contest with the prophets of Baal, one of the pagan gods in Israel. The odds are not good in this contest. 450 prophets of Baal vs. only 1 prophet for Yahweh, and that prophet is Elijah. The contest is pretty simple. Each team calls upon their god to send fire down from heaven and ignite a big bonfire they have built around an altar. The 450 prophets of Baal go first and try everything they can think of to implore Baal to show his power. Nothing happens.

When it’s Elijah’s turn, he decides to up the ante. He pours gallons and gallons of water on the wood piled around the altar. If any of you have ever been camping and tried to build a fire with wet wood, you know how difficult that is. But Elijah calls on Yahweh, and the altar is consumed in flames. And then the story takes an ugly turn. Elijah gets a little carried away with himself and his victory. It’s sort of like football players celebrating too much after a touchdown, only much, much worse. Elijah killed all of the prophets of Baal. I’m guessing he was still a little afraid of a rematch in a BCS bowl game; so he wasn’t taking any chances. But very seriously, we need a footnote and reminder that whenever we read these kinds of Hebrew scriptures that seem to glorify vengeance we need to read them thru the filter of Jesus’ commands that we love our enemies and turn the other cheek. Violence and revenge only perpetuate more of the same until someone says “enough, this is just not working.”

And speaking of vengeance – that’s exactly where we pick up the story in I Kings 19. Verse one says, “Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done.” Oops – now, Elijah is in deep do do. Ahab and Jezebel were king and queen of Israel and big fans of the false god Baal and his prophets. And Jezebel hasn’t heard Jesus’ message about loving enemies. She’s from the eye for an eye school, and when she threatens to kill Elijah he knows she means business. Let’s just say Jezebel was never in the running for Miss Congeniality.

So Elijah, quite understandably, is afraid. His flight or fight mechanism kicks in, and knowing he has no chance to win a power struggle with the wicked queen, he gets out of Dodge post haste. He goes a day’s journey into the wilderness and leaves his servant behind so he can be as alone as he feels. He is so scared and discouraged that he simply plops himself down under a solitary broom tree and asks that he might just die and get it over with.

Ever had times in your life when you are just ready to give up – when all hope is lost? Elijah is overwhelmed by fear and uncertainty. Life is coming at him fast in the form of Jezebel’s hit men, and he sees no way out. He has forgotten about the God of Moses and Ruth and Abraham and Sarah who can make a way out of no way.

There are several lessons we can learn from Elijah about coping with uncertainty in our lives:

Lesson 1: God provides for our needs.

Elijah has forgotten God, but God hasn’t forgotten Elijah. God sends room service – an angel touches him, not once but twice, and says “get up and eat or the journey will be too much for you.” And that angel is not just talking about Elijah’s trip from point A to B. He’s talking about the journey of life. When we are lost and lonely and grieving, we frequently lose our appetite or literally forget to eat. But God provides for our needs—both physical and spiritual– when we’re ready to receive them–and frequently in most unexpected ways.

Elijah eats the food provided by God, and it must have been really good food. The text tells us that “on the strength of that food Elijah went on for 40 days and nights,” Why 40? The same reason Lent is a 40-day period of preparation for Easter. 40 is a Biblical number that is used often to show us how long God provides for us; and the answer is for as long as it takes. Noah’s flood lasted 40 days and nights. The Hebrews wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for 40 days. And Elijah travels for 40 days. All of that means God is with us for the long haul. The 40’s are not necessarily literal numbers but a way to remind us that God provides for us for as long as it takes, no matter how long that is.

And please note where Elijah’s journey takes him – to Mt. Horeb, the mount of God. Horeb is another Hebrew name for a mountain we know better as Mt. Sinai, the very place that Moses ascends during the Exodus to receive the 10 commandments. Just as we call that big mountain in Alaska “Denali” or “McKinley” because it was named by different tribes of people at different times, so the Hebrews had two names for this Holy place where God’s presence was found.

Elijah thought he was running away from evil, but he was really running to God. He doesn’t know it, apparently, just as we are often surprised when we stumble into God when we least expect to, because there is no place we can go that God is not already there.

Lesson 2: We are never separated from God.

And that’s another important lesson for us to learn from this story – we can run, but we can’t hide from God. God comes to Elijah in the cave where he is hiding and asks a haunting question that we all need to hear. God says, “what are you doing here Elijah?’ And Elijah takes the question, as we often do, too literally. He goes into this long sob story about how awful his life is and why he needs to hide, and how he’s the only faithful person left on the face of the earth. But the question for Elijah and for us is not so literal – it’s a life purpose and mission question – what are we doing here? What is our life purpose as individual Christians, as a church, as citizens of a troubled nation and world? What are we doing to make a difference? Hiding because we’re afraid, because life is coming at us too fast? Saving up for a rainy day instead of trusting God’s abundance and providence to meet our needs? Snarfing up all the manna from heaven we can find in case God reneges on his promise and fails to provide daily bread for us tomorrow or next week? Because we trust God to provide for us every day, the Lord’s prayer doesn’t ask for food to last us until spring or until the economy recovers – we simply pray “give us this day our DAILY bread.”

What are we doing here? Shaking in our boots, making excuses, complaining about how awful those politicians or CEO’s or terrorists, relatives, bosses, kids, spouses, teachers, coaches, preachers… are making our lives? Or are we drawing on the resources of our faith and our mighty God and living lives of faithfulness–confronting our fears and turning them over to the only one who can ever really take the scary out of life.

Lesson 3: Most Fear = False Evidence Appearing Real

Most fears are false evidence appearing real, but the only way to know that is to face them. You can’t defeat an imaginary foe. Our granddaughter once told her little brother that there were vampires living in the closet in his room. For weeks he was afraid to go into his room alone because he believed his sister’s false evidence was real. Elijah was afraid because he believed he was totally alone, doomed, abandoned by God and everyone else. He believed that he was dead meat, and as we will see, he was dead wrong on all counts. His fear was fed by false evidence appearing real.

Lesson 4: We all need time alone with God ….

The next lesson here is that Elijah needs rest – time alone with God. And we all need that. Turn off the “smart” phone and computer and Ipod and tv and telephone, and take time, regularly to relax, re-create our bodies, minds and souls. We all need vacations, sabbaticals, retreats – even Jesus did, and if he did, what makes us think we don’t? We need time to listen for God’s still small voice. As Elijah learns, God doesn’t always speak to us in earthquakes or wind or fire, but in what one translation calls “the sound of sheer silence.” In other words, if we want to hear what God is telling us, we need to shut up and listen. And that includes when we pray. Don’t just spend all your prayer time telling God things God already knows! Take time to listen.

Lesson 5: We need time alone with God… But, we can’t stay there permanently.

Next lesson, yes, we do regularly need retreats – time alone, but we can’t stay there permanently. In the Gospel accounts, when Jesus takes Peter and James and John with him for a mountain top experience and Elijah and Moses appear to them, the disciples first reaction is to homestead there. They want to build houses for Jesus and Moses and Elijah, but Jesus says, no. He knows they have much work to do down in Jerusalem and can’t stay on the mountain forever.

My church’s mission statement says “We share God’s love by words and action.” We need to walk our talk. God’s question is what are we doing here? The letter of James says “faith without works is dead.” We can’t work our way into heaven, but we also know that faith inspires lives that bear good fruit. Of course it is important to be assured of our personal and individual salvation – but that’s only half the gospel. Remember that when asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus didn’t stop with one. He said we need to love God with all our heart and soul and strength and mind, but then he says the second is equally important — love your neighbor as yourself.

OK, I can hear what many of you are thinking. It’s the “yes, but” moment in the sermon. You’re thinking, “that’s good, Steve. We believe it, but we’ve got too much to do. There are too many problems in the world. We can’t possibly fix them all. We’d like to help and we do what we can, but we feel so alone.” When the “yes, buts” raise their ugly heads, we need to get off our buts and trust God—because …

Lesson 6: We are NEVER in this Alone!

Perhaps the most important lesson of this Elijah story is that we are never alone, even though it often feels like we are. Elijah is never alone. He is suffering, but we all suffer. It’s part of the human condition. There are two parts to this lesson – we are obviously never away from God (see point #1 above). But sometimes we feel like little Johnny who was afraid of a storm and unable to go to sleep one night. His mother went in to comfort him and reminded him that he had learned in Sunday School that God and Jesus were always with him, that he wasn’t alone. And Johnny said, “Yes, Mommy, I know, but sometimes I need somebody with skin on them.”

We all do, and the Elijah story reminds us that we never without human partners if we’re willing to see them and accept the fact that our partners in mission don’t always look the way we expect them to look. God says to Elijah later chapter 19 – “Go on your way and as you go anoint Elisha to be a prophet in your place and anoint Jehu as new king of Israel, and by the way, there are still 700 faithful people out there who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” We are never alone if we are doing God’s work.

It is so important to face our fears because fear motivates retreat. Fear shrink wraps the Gospel when it makes us afraid of being prophetic, of challenging bigotry and judgmental thinking. That kind of fear is the spark for burning flags and Korans instead of promoting dialogue and tolerance for different perspectives. Fear is what wants to throw the baby out with the bath instead of finding the good in any situation or relationship or failure or political system. Living in assurance means building on those 700 faithful ones instead of letting one evil queen or king silence the truth. Fear keeps us from getting to know others who appear so different from a distance but have the same needs for love and grace all humans have. It is so much easier to judge or fear a stereotype than someone we know as a fellow human being.

Faith is the only antidote to fear that works – it allows us to laugh at our own foolishness, just as the rabbits crack up in the Travelers’ commercial. We love and laugh at our fears because we know that God alone can take the scary out of life. How do we know that? We know the cross of Calvary and the tomb on Easter are empty. We know that in the game of life, the powers of evil and hatred and fear have a big goose egg on the scoreboard, and God’s eternal, life-giving love is off the charts. It’s a worse mismatch than OSU vs. Eastern Michigan. No contest.

Paul says it best in Romans 8 – “If God is for us, who is against us. For we know that nothing – hear that, nothing in all creation, not fear, worry, death, powers or principalities, nothing in all creation, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

I leave you with a great question: If you knew you could accomplish anything God wants you to do and were guaranteed that you could not fail – what would you do with your life? Well guess what? The good news of the resurrected living Christ that we model our lives after is that we can’t fail if we have God on our side. In Christ, God has already taken the scary out of life and death once and for all.

That means we have no excuse to run and hide when life comes at us fast. God says, hey Steve, hey church, I have already conquered the world – so what are you doing here?

Stop Kicking the Can or Perish

I was reminded the other day of how strong denial can be in getting humans to face obvious but difficult realities. An obituary in a local newspaper reported that a person who was under hospice care had died “unexpectedly.” Seeing others in denial is worth a chuckle, but it’s also a reminder to check the mirror for any logs in our own eyes.

When I played “kick the can” as a child I never could have imagined what a dangerous political game it would become in the 21st century. The most recent federal fiscal fiasco has me reflecting on what the Judeo-Christian heritage has to say that can help save my grandchildren and their children from paying for the short-sightedness of my generation. This is not a new problem. Several times in the Hebrew Scriptures we are warned that the sins of one generation are visited upon their off-spring “to the 3rd and 4th generation” (Exodus 20:5, 34:6-7, Deuteronomy 5:9). Even though it’s bad theology to blame bad consequences on a vengeful God punishing children and grandchildren for their ancestors’ disobedience and foolishness, the simple wisdom that actions have consequences is indisputable and needs to be applied across the board to liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike, to complex problems like balancing the budget and global warming.

My first thought about political short-sightedness is often about climate change and the refusal of many conservatives to take seriously the mountain of scientific evidence that indicates we are damaging mother earth’s eco-system in a multitude of ways that will have irreversible long-term effects for much longer than 3 or 4 generations. When well-meaning politicians and business leaders say we can’t afford environmental regulations on businesses because of the short-term impact those laws have on employment and economic development, the Scripture that comes to mind is Proverbs 29:18. The King James translation of that verse I learned as a youth says, “Without vision the people perish.” More recent and better translations of the Hebrew text say, “When there is no prophesy (or prophetic vision) the people cast off restraint.” Modifying “vision” with “prophetic” is a critical distinction because short-sighted goals that favor the bottom line at all costs are still visions, but they lead to long-term disaster. Faithful, prophetic visions however take into consideration both the short-term and long-term consequences of our decisions for the well-being of all God’s children, even those yet to be born.

Two word-study comments are in order: “Prophesy” in biblical terms is often confused with simply foretelling the future, but that key theological concept is far more complicated that simple crystal-ball gazing. The Hebrew prophets were not psychics but those anointed by God to speak God’s word of truth to those who need to but usually do not want to hear it. A common phrase in the Hebrew Scriptures is “the law and the prophets” indicating both the need to know God’s laws and codes of behavior represented by such passages as the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20), but also the practical interpretation and application of those general rules for living to specific circumstances. The latter critical thinking is what prophets do. The second phrase in Proverbs 29:18 that is worthy of comment is “the people cast off restraint.” The other use of that phrase in the Hebrew Scriptures occurs in Exodus 32:25 where the Hebrew people make and worship a golden calf even while Moses is on Mt. Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments. The Hebrew words there are translated as describing the Hebrew condition as “total loss of social order,” “out of control,” or “laughingstock.” It seems to me those terms could easily be applied to the polarized political situation in the U.S. today.

Here’s my latest take on the common problem on both sides of the political debate, i.e. short-sightedness or lack of prophetic vision. On one side we have the simple mathematical facts that (1) spending billions more than we have is a sure-fire formula for disaster and (2) our current system of providing resources for our increasingly older population, i.e. Social Security and Medicare, is not sustainable unless it is reformed. Everyone acknowledges those elephants are in the room and getting bigger every day, but no one so far is willing to pay the political price of picking up that hot potato and making the painful decisions necessary to address the problems. “Kicking the can down the road” has become the catch phrase for passing the buck, which means visiting the consequences of our short-sighted denial of these problems onto the 3rd or 4th generation.

Another major issue demanding solution is the environmental survival vs. economic growth impasse. This issue is so critical for humankind that it cannot be an either/or partisan debate that results in stubborn refusal on both sides to do anything or we will indeed perish as Proverbs predicts. Prophetic vision demands courage on both sides of the political spectrum to lead us out of denial to a willingness to make whatever political and economic sacrifices must be made that will not be popular with anyone but are necessary for the long-term survival of our nation and our planet.

For Christians this season of Lent is a perfect time to reflect upon the necessity of sacrificial living. None of our current societal problems can be solved with a competitive win-lose mind set. Every citizen and political faction must be willing to compromise and find common ground instead of the perpetual electioneering we now have. The Hebrew prophets can serve as models for that kind of servant leadership. Biblical prophets never won any popularity contests or elections because they spoke truth instead of party platitudes or ideology. They put integrity and facing uncomfortable truths ahead of personal goals and comfort. Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah were willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, and we need leaders today who are willing to do the same today before it’s too late.

Jesus followed in the footsteps of those Hebrew prophets. He took upon himself the role of suffering servant and prophet described centuries earlier by the anonymous prophet known as Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55). Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem in the final months of his life and nothing could deter or detour him from his destiny on the cross. His disciples repeatedly urged him to bail and take an easier path, but Jesus knew what was required of him and put God’s truth and justice above all thoughts of personal comfort or glory. My prayer is that God will raise up leaders again today with that kind of courage and that all of us will have ears to hear and courage to follow instead of just kicking the can down the road to some other generation.

For this Lent 2013 with sequestration, budget cuts, climate change and a host of other challenges, I find inspiration and guidance in the words of a great hymn by S. Ralph Barlow, “O Young and Fearless Prophet.”

“O young and fearless Prophet of ancient Galilee,
Thy life is still a summons to serve humanity;
To make our thoughts and actions less prone to please the crowd,
To stand with humble courage for truth with hearts uncowed.

We marvel at the purpose that held Thee to Thy course
While ever on the hilltop before Thee loomed the cross;
Thy steadfast face set forward where love and duty shone,
While we betray so quickly and leave Thee there alone.

O help us stand unswerving against war’s bloody way,
Where hate and lust and falsehood hold back Christ’s holy sway;
Forbid false love of country that blinds us to His call,
Who lifts above the nations the unity of all.

Stir up in us a protest against our greed for wealth,
While others starve and hunger and plead for work and health;
Where homes with little children cry out for lack of bread,
Who live their years sore burdened beneath a gloomy dread.

Create in us the splendor that dawns when hearts are kind,
That knows not race nor station as boundaries of the mind;
That learns to value beauty, in heart, or brain, or soul,
And longs to bind God’s children into one perfect whole.

O young and fearless Prophet, we need Thy presence here,
Amid our pride and glory to see Thy face appear;
Once more to hear Thy challenge above our noisy day,
Again to lead us forward along God’s holy way.”

Transfiguration, Matthew 17:1-8

The transfiguration story is one of my favorite Gospel scriptures, but that was not always the case. For a long time this story of Jesus talking to two dead guys seemed a little weird to me. What are we sophisticated, rational, scientific 21st century people supposed to do with this ghost story?

The breakthrough for me and this text came when I was able to suspend my literal questions of what and how and look at this story instead through theological lenses. That ah hah moment happened for me when, after preaching for several years, it finally dawned on me that this transfiguration story in one of the Gospels shows up every year in the same place in the church lectionary. And it is always on the Sunday before Lent begins at a major turning point in the Christian year. We have just come through the joy and light of Christmas and Epiphany and now stand on the brink of the somber dark purples and blacks of Lent. The transfiguration story, this mountain top experience, stands right in the middle of all that, between Bethlehem and Calvary

Matthew 17 begins with the phrase “six days later.” What does that mean? When we hear things like that inquiring minds immediately ask, “What happened six days earlier?” If you read Matthew 16 you find that what happened six days earlier was a “come to Jesus” meeting where Jesus asks the disciples some important questions about what people were thinking and saying about who Jesus is. The final and most important question Jesus put to the disciples (and therefore to us) was, “Who do you say that I am?” Good old Peter of course is eager to answer. “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God,” he proudly blurts out. And he’s right of course. Like us, he knows the right answer on this test, but as the ensuing verses of chapter 16 show, he and the other disciples really don’t know it means. He knows who Jesus is, but he doesn’t REALLY know.

So in the transfiguration story and the verses just before it Jesus addresses that problem. He is preparing his disciples for what is to come in Jerusalem and beyond, just as Lent is a time of spiritual growth and preparation for us as well. In chapter 16 Jesus has tried to tell them about his coming death and resurrection, and they don’t get it. Peter answers the question correctly about who Jesus is, but he doesn’t really understand or accept the cost of discipleship.

So six days later Jesus tries again. He and his three key disciples have a mountain top experience. Like all mountain top experiences, this one is short-lived. There’s no video, no crowds or witnesses – just three scared fishermen and Jesus in a powerful encounter with God.

At first Peter, James and John love it up there. The view is fantastic, it’s peaceful and quiet – they have a moving experience, probably feeling closer to God than ever before in their lives. So quite naturally they want that glorious moment to last as long as possible. They want to stay on the mountain and live the good life away from all the problems and clamoring crowds in the valley below.

John Ortberg in his book and DVD series, “It All Goes back in the Box,” describes the most dangerous object in our homes. It’s not the power tools or the kitchen knives. He says the most dangerous item in our houses is the EZ chair. We even call them La-Z Boys! They seduce us into object lessons of inertia, don’t they? You remember, “An object at rest tends to stay at rest?” That’s not to say we don’t need moments of rest and relaxation. Many of us are so busy “doing” all the time that we don’t make time to simply “be.” We need time in the EZ chair; we just can’t make that our permanent residence.

When the disciples lobby for homesteading on the mountain, Jesus sees a teaching moment. He knows his purpose is not fame and fortune or a comfortable retirement. His is not a theology of glory, but a theology of the cross. God never promised Jesus or us a rose garden – just the garden of Gethsemane. We know that. We’ve seen this movie before, and we know what’s coming next. But every year, isn’t there just a part of us that still would like to think Jesus was wrong. Maybe this year scholars will discover an EZ chair version of this story? One that gets us to Easter without Good Friday.

We know that won’t work, and Lent is time for us to ponder our relationship to that reality. How much are we like the disciples arguing over who gets the EZ chairs next to Jesus in heaven? Can’t we just homestead on the mountain, build little booths for Elijah and Moses and Jesus, and avoid the pain of the valley below. But the full abundant life is not real in isolation. We need regular retreats but not escapes. More than ever before we need regular times to turn off all our electronic gadgets and background noise and be with God. We need times of solitude to renew a right spirit within us, to get a proper perspective so we can see where God is calling us to go next. We just can’t stay there on the mountain top.

We and the disciples aren’t the only ones that want the EZ chair life. The scriptures are full of tales of those who try to run away from God’s call: Jonah called to go preach to the heathens in Nineveh instead boards a ship (hopefully not one of Carnival’s) heading to Tarshish, 180 degrees in the wrong direction. Elijah runs for his life from Queen Jezebel to Mt. Horeb (aka Sinai). These two great stories show us that even if we go to the depths of the sea or to the highest mountain, God will find us and ask what he asked Elijah, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” That’s a great question to ask ourselves every day during this season of Lent: “what are we doing here?” Is it what God is calling us to do or what we want to do?

If you remember the Elijah story from I Kings 19, Elijah doesn’t get to stay on the mountain either – he is called back down into the valley to share God’s word with those desperately needing to hear it and save them from worshiping false gods. But Elijah doesn’t go down alone – God appoints Elisha to partner with him and carry on after Elijah’s death. Jesus can’t go down the mountain alone either. He needs us to carry on God’s work in his stead. Do you hear that call – “This is my son – listen to him,” says the voice of God? Listen, and then follow him, back down into the valley where those who suffer need comfort, where corruption needs to be confronted and corrected–back into the world where Jesus teaches us that the poor will be with us always.

It is not a journey for sissies. Jesus knows it leads to that other mountain he can see in the distance; not one of glory with two saints – but one with crosses and two crooks. None of us like to suffer – it’s scary. No matter how strong our faith, death fills us with some level of anxiety and dread. As comedian Woody Allen so aptly put it, “I don’t mind dying, I just don’t’ want to be there when it happens.”

In the presence of God’s power we all tremble, and the disciples do too. Matthew tells us when they heard the voice of God they fell on their faces – ouch, and not a good position to do much from either. And then listen what happens – Jesus came and touched them and their fear is gone. They are transfigured, changed, and “when they looked up they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.”

Jesus alone is all we need to see us through the dark valleys. If we let him he provides us with the courage to overcome our fears – to come out of hiding, off our mountains of pride and comfort and live in the real world. Jesus speaks to us calmly about real life – joy, suffering, death and resurrection, and because he’s been there and done that – we know we can too.

Lent and especially Ash Wednesday calls us to affirm all of life – the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat – to embrace not only the joy of Easter but the passion of the journey that takes us there. That journey begins again tonight, and in the transfiguration story we get a glimpse of the glory of God that is revealed in its fullness on Easter morning.

I would encourage you to seek mountain top moments this Lent –times when you feel especially close to God. Those moments won’t happen unless we put ourselves in position to witness God’s glory. We don’t have mountain top life-changing experiences unless we take time to climb the mountain. The good news is we don’t need to physically climb a mountain or even a hill. We get close to God through prayer, study, service, fasting or whatever spiritual disciplines work for you.

When we do and take time to listen, God teaches us not to seek only the mountains of glory, but to accept our Calvaries too, our failure, our sin, our mortality – not fearfully and anxiously, but obediently and trusting in the will and redemptive power of God

God’s promise is that on both mountains – the mountain of glory and mountain of the cross–and in the valleys in between – Jesus journeys with us, not just for 40 days plus 6 Sundays. Jesus is with us for the long haul and walks with us “even to the end of the age.”

(Preached Ash Wednesday 2013 at Jerome UMC, Plain City, Ohio)

“The Gospel According to Jobs and Jesus,” Matthew 25:14-30

I wrote the first draft of his post somewhere between Nassau and Miami on the final day of a 4-day cruise that took us and 2000 new friends to Key West and Nassau and back to Miami. Like life, our trip itinerary was subject to change without notice.  We were supposed go to Cozumel, Mexico, but Hurricane Rina rained on that parade.  So we did a big U-turn and joined 5 other huge cruise ships in Nassau to benefit the Bahamian economy.  Lots of American dollars intended for conversion to pesos went to Nassau instead.  $111 of ours was spent on a tour to the obscenely over-priced Atlantis resort to see how the other .5% lives.

The huge resort can’t be missed from the cruise ship dock, and we could have gotten there by cab or ferry for a few dollars.  But fear of coping with a strange city where they drive on the wrong side of the road, even if they do speak English, led me to pay the cruise line and local entrepreneurs to take us on a 10 minute ride, literally and figuratively.  One of the signature features of the Atlantis Resort is a 4740 square foot suite that is located in a bridge sixteen stories up than links two of the imposing twenty-three-story towers on what some marketing genius named Paradise Island.  The bridge suite rents for $25,000 per night (that’s not a typo—it’s 25K), and, in case you are interested in booking it, there’s a four night minimum stay required!  Staying there is not on my bucket list, but if anyone starts an Occupy Atlantis protest, it might be a good place to spend the winter.

The opulent wastefulness within sight of the hundreds of dirt poor native merchants selling cheap souvenirs along the cruise ship dock seemed to confirm the punch line of the parable of the talents which says, “to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have abundance, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (Matt.25:29).  Never mind the obvious question/problem of how one can take away anything from those who have nothing, where’s the justice in that scenario?  And it gets worse from there.  The parable goes on to pass harsh judgment on the one-talent slave for his scarcity-inspired fear and condemns him as a “wicked, lazy worthless slave “ who is to be thrown into “the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v. 30).

Granted, that’s a nasty slave owner speaking here, not Jesus (we hope).  Makes me wonder if this parable is about the Reign of God or of Warren Buffet, or could it be both?   Certainly the world rewards risk-takers and those able to think outside the box.  The late Steve Jobs had 313 Apple patents to his name when he died.  Jobs is an inspiring story, and the title of Chapter 1 of his new auto-biography explains much of his success–“From Abandoned to the Chosen One.” I haven’t read the book, but I’m guessing that attitude and gratitude that he was rescued to a new life by his adoptive parents (whom he calls his “real” parents) carried Steve Jobs through many failures and setbacks in his life.  His much quoted commencement speech from Stanford’s 2005 graduation, advising his audience to embrace their mortality and dare to look foolish, might describe the first two slaves in the parable of the talents.

The first two slaves dared to risk all they had in order to reap an impressive return on their investments.  And they are rewarded by their master with praise and a big promotion.  I admire people with that kind of chutzpah.  I’m more like the one-talent slave who digs a hole and buries the money to avoid the risk of losing all he had in an economic downturn.  I wonder how much of our current recession is caused by that kind of fearful scarcity mentality.  From small investors like me worried about shrinking retirement accounts to multi-billion dollar corporations that are hoarding their profits instead of reinvesting them in job-creating new projects, fear inspires more of the same.  Isn’t there the same amount of money out there somewhere now as there was in the boom years prior to 2008?  Most of it is just buried somewhere and not being circulated to create more jobs, services and products.

But the parable of the talents is about much more than economics.  Fear stifles faith and creativity in every aspect of our lives, from honest, intimate relationships to athletic and career achievements.  The slave with one talent buried it, and when asked why he says, “I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground” (v. 25).   Sounds a little like hiding one’s light under a bushel, doesn’t it?  But notice another word in that sentence that’s easy to overlook—the word “your.”  The talents don’t belong to the slaves but to the master, just as my house and car and other worldly goods don’t belong to me either.  There’s an old hymn that describes our role as stewards of God’s creation very well.  We often sing it to inspire more generous contributions in the offering plates, but it’s about all of our “possessions.”  “We give thee but thine own, what ‘ere the gift may be.  All that we have is thine alone, a gift O Lord from Thee.”

The good news is that we are all playing with house money.  We’ve got nothing to lose.  Not only is the deed to my house and my car and my 401K really not mine, neither is my life.  Some wag once said, “Don’t take yourself so seriously.  You’ll never get out of this life alive anyway.”  That wisdom needs to be filed next to “You can’t take it (and that means any of it) with you.”  Ever seen an armored car in a funeral procession?
Writer’s block is one familiar example of how fear stifles the talents God gave us.  I have a slogan on my writing desk that says, “Write as if no one will read it.”  That was inspired by the popular saying by William Purkey, “Dance like no one is watching, love like you’ll never be hurt, sing like no one is listening, and live like it’s heaven on earth.”  A brave honest student helped me break through my fear and publish my first book this spring.  She asked me if I had published anything.  I said, “No, but I have lots of good stuff in my files and my computer.”  Her poignant reply really hit home.  She said, “Oh, so you’re going to publish posthumously?”
We know the one-talent slave was afraid because Matthew tells us he was, but what about the first two?  We aren’t told they were fearful, but it’s pretty likely since none of us are immune from fear.  If those first two slaves were afraid, the difference is they acted in spite of the fear, much like the title of Susan Jeffers’ excellent book advises, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.  It’s possible the first two slaves used their fear of the harsh master as motivation to risk losing what they had in order to reap a greater reward.  The third slave buried his talent for fear of losing it, and in the process guaranteed its potential was lost.
What dreams and goals do we have that are buried and abandoned by fear of failure?  “Oh, I can’t write that book, it might not sell?  I don’t dare speak that truth!  People might not like it!”  And by choosing not to try I guarantee failure.  It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy.  Jesus takes that to the nth degree when he says, “Those who try to save their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives will save them” (Luke 17:33).   Faith by definition requires risk.  That’s why Paul says we are called to be “fools for Christ” (I Cor. 4:10).   I love the way Bette Midler preaches that truth in “The Rose.”

“ It’s the heart, afraid of breaking
That never learns to dance .
It’s the dream, afraid of waking
That never takes the chance.
It’s the one who won’t be taken
Who cannot seem to give .
And the soul, afraid of dying
That never learns to live.” (Amanda McBroom)

The lessons are the same from Midler, Jobs, and Jesus:
•    This life is finite.
•    We are all abandoned by all earthly things and allegiances.
•    Those who also know that we are chosen and adopted by God are able to live by faith and dare to live.

The parable says the third slave was cast into the outer darkness by his own lack of faith.  It doesn’t say he has to stay there forever.  Failure was his choice and so is learning to trust.

We all fall down, often.  The secret is learning what an old Japanese proverb teaches, “Fall Down seven times, Get up eight.”