Texts used – Psalm 19; Mark 8:27-38
- “[Ron] had just raised his wand when the compartment door slid open again. The toadless boy was back, but this time he had a girl with him. She was already wearing her new Hogwarts robes. ‘Has anyone seen a toad? Neville’s lost one,’ she said. She had a bossy sort of voice, lots of bushy brown hair, and rather large front teeth. … ‘Are you sure that’s a real spell?’ said the girl. ‘Well, it’s not very good, is it? I’ve tried a few simple spells just for practice and it’s all worked for me. Nobody in my family’s magic at all, it was ever such a surprise when I got my letter, but I was ever so pleased, of course, I mean, it’s the very best school of witchcraft there is, I’ve heard – I’ve learned all our course books by heart, of course, I just hope it will be enough.’” → And so prolifically imaginative author J.K. Rowling introduces us to arguably one of the greatest female literary characters of all time: Hermione Granger.
- Always has her nose buried in a book
- Always working exceptionally hard to be the best and brightest, smartest, top of the class in everything she does
- Constantly the first to raise her hand in class
- Always the first one to get things right – potions, spells, etc.
- Loves to study and do homework and take tests
- Hermione is the one that her friends always go to for the “right” answer because they know without a doubt that she will know it. → reminds me a lot of Peter in our Scripture reading this morning – story of right answers … and not-so-right answers
- Gospel reading, pt. 1 → all about the right answer
- Text: Jesus and his disciples went into the villages near Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They told him, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others one of the prophets.” He asked them, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ.” Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone about him. → “Who do people say that I am?” = interesting question for Jesus to ask along the road
- Gets a couple of “kinda-sorta” answers from some of the disciples – maybe John the Baptist (who has been killed by Herod at this point), maybe Elijah (prophet who was whisked into heaven by God before he could even die), maybe “one of the prophets” (really … does it get any more vague than that??)
- But it’s Peter who comes up with the zinger: “You are the Christ.” Ta da! Ding ding ding ding ding! I kind of picture Jeaopardy in my head on this one. – moment in the show when there’s one contestant who obviously has the answer but just can’t get buzzed in soon enough so while the people around him are buzzing in and giving the wrong answer, that contestant is standing there just mashing on his buzzer button as fast as he can → That’s how I picture Peter in this moment. He’s got the answer. He knows he does. And he can’t wait to share it.
- And you’d think Jesus would be excited about this answer. In fact, you’d think he’d be doing cartwheels because finally, at least one of the disciples gets it!! → over and over again, throughout Mark, disciples are portrayed as not understanding
- Not understanding who Jesus is
- Not understanding what he’s doing to the point of being a hinerance (esp. turning away people seeking healing)
- Not understanding what Jesus is trying to tell them, both through parables and in “plain speech”
- But finally, in our story this morning, Peter gives Jesus the right answer … and yet, Jesus responds with another theme in Mark – one that is challenging and frankly a bit baffling → what scholars call the Messianic Secret in Mark – text: He asked them, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ.” Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
- Time and time again throughout Mark’s gospel – whenever Jesus does anything miraculous or anything worth noting – he instructs those involved not to tell anyone what he’s done.
- Happens with healings
- Happens with casting out demons
- Happens with resurrections
- It doesn’t matter whether he’s talking to a demon that’s been cast out, a regular person, or the disciples. The instruction is always the same: Tell no one. Keep it quiet. Of course, people rarely listen to Jesus when he tells them this. More often than not, they run back to their villages, to their families, even to the Pharisees bursting with the news of this incredible thing that Jesus has just done for them. But the fact remains that Jesus insists on silence. Even in the face of this Ultimate Right Answer that Peter has given, Jesus’ response is, “Don’t tell anyone.”
- Scholars posit multiple reasons for this → could be that Jesus knows it isn’t quite the right time for his death and resurrection yet → He has more to do before his time comes, and if people spread the word too quickly, it’ll bring his ministry to a close too soon.
- Because as we see in the next part of our reading, Jesus knows exactly what’s coming. → first of 3 predictions about his impending death that Jesus makes in Mk – text: Then Jesus began to teach his disciples: “The Human One must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead.”
- Peter’s reaction to this = certainly a gut reaction (probably like the reaction we all would have in the same situation): He said this to them plainly. But Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him. Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, then sternly corrected Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.” → Poor Peter’s entire story of discipleship is a roller coaster of highs and lows. He’s just given Jesus The Perfect Answer – “You are the Christ” – and then, when Jesus tells them about the suffering that is to come – Peter tries to get Jesus to stop. He takes hold of him. He scolds him, corrects him, rebukes and warns him. In Peter’s mind, Jesus’ words cannot be the right answer, so he’s got to stop.
- Peter’s response according to Matthew’s version of this story: Then Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him: “God forbid, Lord! This won’t happen to you.” → words and actions that Peter surely thought were right in his own head – no one wants to listen to their mentor speak such words of pain and suffering about himself – so again, Peter tries to give the “right” answer … but this time, he is oh, so wrong
- Instead of Jesus listening to him – maybe even praising him for his devotion and protective impulses – Jesus comes back at Peter with another hard-to-swallow response: “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”
- In Peter’s defense: must remember that Peter was a Jew – “Messiah/Christ/Anointed One” that the Jews were waiting for was a kingly warrior figure who would liberate them from the oppression of the Romans at the tip of a sword → So for Peter to hear that this Messiah who was supposed to be their Mighty Liberator was actually planning on suffering and dying at the hands of their enemies was surely jarring, to say the least.
- Scholar: Imagine the disciples’ shock on hearing that the restored and anointed one should suffer in the same way Israel has. If the Messiah suffers in this same way, how can the Messiah restore Israel? … After we come to claim Jesus as the Messiah promised to the Jews, we are forced to accept the radical and strange meaning of Jesus as this Messiah. Regardless of the possibility that years of Sunday school have properly indoctrinated us into the “right” answer about who Jesus is and the meaning of his life, the radical new meaning of being the Messiah found in this text is not what we inherently wish for or expect at a fundamental level as human beings. → And yet, not only did Peter get a harsh response from Jesus, the Messiah went on to talk about how those who truly wanted to follow him must actually lost their lives as well!
- Not the answer Peter expected
- Almost certainly not the answer he wanted to hear
- So let’s return to our initial illustration for a moment – Hermione Granger. If you’re not familiar with the magical wizarding world of Harry Potter created by J.K. Rowling, let me give you a very quick primer this morning.
- Hogwarts = boarding school for young witches and wizards to learn how to use magic → 4 “houses”/student communities within Hogwarts: Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, Slytherin, and Gryffindor → each house has its own personality (Hufflepuff = kind, Slytherin = conniving, Ravenclaw = studious, Gryffindor = brave) → upon embarking on their educational journey within the walls of Hogwarts, each student is magically sorted into a house that best fits their personality and character → Knowing what you already know about Hermione, you would expect that she would be sorted into Ravenclaw – the house for those who thirst for knowledge above all else. And yet, when it comes to her turn to be sorted, Hermione is sent to Gryffindor – the house of bravery.
- Many who knew her would’ve thought it was a mistake
- But time and time again throughout the entire Harry Potter saga, Hermione proves that, while she’s certainly full of book smarts – very often having exactly the right answer in the midst of a sticky situation – she also possess the ability and the assurance to act – for the good of her friends, for the good of those weaker than herself, and for the greater good. When the Sorting Hat put Hermione in Gryffindor instead of Ravenclaw, it was a testimony to the importance of having the courage to act over having the “right” answer.
- Scholar: Peter’s exclamation that Jesus is the Messiah appears to give us hope that the disciples are starting to understand who Jesus is. Unfortunately it is a false hope. Peter’s “correct confession” is deceptive. It points out an important reality: we can have what appears to be everything in order – words, actions, and so on – and still have it very wrong.
- Ps 19 speaks to that this morning
- Speaks of all the wonder and beauty and magnificence that is God’s work
- Speaks of how God’s word and God’s instructions are perfect and righteous
- Speaks of how crucial it is to keep God’s word
- And yet – text: But can anyone know what they’ve accidentally done wrong? Clear me of my unknown sin and save your servant from willful sins. Don’t let them rule me. Then I’ll be completely blameless; I’ll be innocent of great wrongdoing. Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you, Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
- Very often, we seem to think that “discipleship” means having the right answers at the right times. But in our Gospel reading for this morning, Jesus reminds us that that’s not what discipleship is about at all. It’s not about having the right answer, the wrong answer, or any answer. It’s about actions. – text: After calling the crowd together with his disciples, Jesus said to them, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of the good news will save them. Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? What will people give in exchange for their lives? Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this unfaithful and sinful generation, the Human One will be ashamed of that person when he comes in the Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
- Scholar: Jesus’ words to Peter suggest that he can and must gain another perspective, that he can set his mind on “divine things.” In our relationship with Jesus, there is the promise and the hope that somehow the divine perspective on who we are and what we are about breaks through. In him God enables us to find a way that is different from the way of the world, enables us to discern how life is fulfilled as God intends, enables us to live by values that are not embodied in the normal course of human affairs. → It is a call to follow – a stark, startling, strange and summoning call to follow Jesus, not with all the quick and easy answers – not even with the complex but comforting answers – but to simply follow. It is indeed a stark, startling, and strange call. But let us follow all the same. Amen.
 J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. (New York, NY: Scholastic Books, 1997), 106-107.
 Mk 8:27-30.
 Mk 8:29-30 (emphasis added).
 Mk 8:31.
 Mk 8:32-33.
 Mt 16:22.
 Nathan G. Jennings. “Proper 19 (Sunday between September 11 and September 17 inclusive) – Mark 8:27-38 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 4. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 69, 71.
 Andrê Resner. “Mark 8:27-30 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 239.
 Ps 19:12-14.
 Mk 8:34-38.
 Harry B. Adams. “Proper 19 (Sunday between September 11 and September 17 inclusive) – Mark 8:27-38 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 4. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 72.
Texts used – Mark 7:24-37; James 2:1-9, 13-17
- Superheroes seem to be taking over the world nowadays.
- School supplies
- Action figures
- The marketing possibilities surely seem to be endless. Even my 5-yr-old boys could spend hours telling you all about Captain America, the Flash, the Hulk, Ironman, and so on … and they’ve never even seen the movies!
- One all-time favorite superhero seemingly forgotten in the shuffle
- Made his animated debut in 1964
- Series ran new episodes for 3 yrs., then ran syndicated reruns for another few decades
- This beloved but largely forgotten superhero is … Underdog!
- One of the more humble superheroes out there
- Didn’t wear a tight costume that showed off his non-existent muscles but instead wore a baggy shirt tucked poofily into his pants
- Frequently messed up the finer points of his rescues in one way or another – crashing into buildings or causing collateral damage of some kind or another – but he always managed to save Sweet Polly Purebred just the same
- Tag line: “There’s no need to fear! Underdog is here!”
- Okay … so in reality, Underdog was a bit of a goofy superhero. But he was fun because in truth, very often, we like to root for the underdog, don’t we?
- Cartoons aren’t your thing? → sports illustration: If I turn on a football game (and it’s someone other than the Packers or the Vikings playing), I have a tendency to root for whoever’s losing. I like to root for the underdog.
- Same goes for college basketball during March Madness → I’ve long since given up on filling out March Madness brackets. Mine always end up busted in the first round because I always pick the underdog … the long-shot … the Cinderella story.
- Innate tendency to want to throw our hats in with those who need help – to boost up the little guy
- This morning’s gospel reading is an underdog story – a David-versus-Goliath kind of story … but it’s probably not the underdog story that we expect.
- Lots of stories throughout the gospels in which Jesus and his disciples play the part of the underdog
- Jesus going head-to-head with the Pharisees
- Jesus confronted by an angry and misunderstanding mob in his hometown
- Jesus tempted by the devil in the wilderness
- Jesus’ arrest and trial before both Pilate and Herod
- We’re used to the deck being stacked against Jesus. We’re used to feeling like we need to cheer Jesus on in the midst of the hurdles that he faces throughout his ministry – healing on the Sabbath, being cornered by the tricky questions thrown at him by the legal experts, catching flack time and time again for traveling and eating and praying with and generally being around the wrong kind of people (tax collectors … sinners … unclean people … women). We’re used to all of this. We’re used to Jesus as the underdog.
- Today’s gospel story, though, turns everything on its head – text: Jesus left that place and went into the region of Tyre. He didn’t want anyone to know that he had entered a house, but he couldn’t hide. In fact, a woman whose young daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit heard about him right away. She came and fell at his feet. The woman was Greek, Syrophoenician by birth. She begged Jesus to throw the demon out of her daughter. He responded, “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” → Okay … we need to unpack this all a little bit.
- Approached by this woman who wants Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter → Let’s talk about this woman for a minute.
- Scholar points out that in fact this is only one of two times in the whole of Mk’s gospel when women actually speak
- Once at the tomb after Jesus’ crucifixion
- Other time = today
- So strike one: she’s a woman. She doesn’t even warrant Mark recording her name or anything about her other than she’s Greek, Syrophoenician by birth … and that’s strike two. She’s a woman and she’s a local – a Gentile.
- “Syrophoenician” = a woman from the territory of Phoenicia in the province of Syria → roughly the area on the border between current-day Israel and Lebanon to the north on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea
- Context/placement wise in the grand arch of Mk’s gospel → comes directly after Jesus rebukes Pharisees for being hypocrites – talking about what defiles a person as being what comes out, not what goes in
- Speaking of food at the time
- But his words will hit a little closer to home than he might like in our story this morning because of what Jesus says – what comes out of his mouth – when he responds to this Syrophoenician woman: “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” → Gr. “dogs” = far from a good or pleasant term
- Jesus isn’t referring to the cute and adorable puppies we keep in our homes as pets today à Dogs in Jesus’ day were mongrels and scavengers – creatures to be chased away from your flocks, your children, and your village. No one needed them. No one wanted them. So by calling the Syrophoenician woman a dog, Jesus is being dismissive at best, and insulting at worst.
- Underdog in this story is not Jesus but is, in fact, the woman begging Jesus for help
- She is the David → Jesus is the Goliath
- Not the role that we’re used to seeing Jesus in → But that is exactly why this is such a powerful story from the gospel. Very often, we focus on the more divine aspects of Jesus – matching wits and prevailing against the devil in the wilderness, miraculous healings, Jesus as God’s Son … God Incarnate … Emmanuel God-With-Us. And I think that in focusing on these important elements of who Jesus was, we forget that he was fully divine, yes, but also fully human. Today’s Scripture reading offers us a glimpse of that more human side of Jesus.
- Side that gets frustrated, that gets tired, that in this moment gets so blinded by his desire to help his people – the people of Israel – that he dismisses this woman and her request … this woman who is the wrong sort
- And it is in the woman’s comeback that we see incredible learning and grace and faith, both on her part and on Jesus’ part.
- Text: [Jesus] responded, “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” But she answered, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” “Good answer!” he said. “Go on home. The demon has already left your daughter.” When she returned to her house, she found the child lying on the bed and the demon gone. → This woman – this unnamed, Gentile woman – witnesses to Jesus. Turning his own insult back on him, she makes it clear that even the smallest kernel – the most seemingly-insignificant crumb of faith can move mountains … or demons, as the case may be. She opens Jesus’ eyes and heart to new possibilities. She boldly and faithfully claims even the crumbs – the castoff mercy and grace that Jesus may still be willing to give.
- Critical turning point in Jesus’ ministry → almost everything before it happens in Jewish territory to Jewish people BUT after this encounter, Jesus’ message of grace is open to all – Jews and Gentiles alike
- Scholar addresses both the shocking nature of Jesus’ insult and the shocking nature of the woman’s response: She accepts his priority of ministering first to the people of Israel, yet she is not satisfied with this. Her faith calls forth a larger vision of God’s mission to the Gentiles. Jesus immediately recognizes the God-given wisdom of her words, changes his mind, and commends her outspokenness. In light of her words, Jesus does not simply have second thoughts: his vision and vocation are radically reoriented. … However unsettling this exchange may be, its resolution reveals that God is not unchanging or unresponsive but compassionate and merciful.
- Harkens to the words from Jas that we read this morning – text: My brothers and sisters, when you show favoritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory. Imagine two people coming into your meeting. One has a gold ring and fine clothes, while the other is poor, dressed in filthy rags. Then suppose that you were to take special notice of the one wearing fine clothing, saying, “Here’s an excellent place. Sit here.” But to the poor person you say, “Stand over there”; or, “Here, sit at my feet.” Wouldn’t you have shown favoritism among yourselves and become evil-minded judges? … You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself. But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin, and by that same law you are exposed as a lawbreaker.
- So often, we read in Scripture that Jesus is asking us to change our hearts and our ways – to let go of previous assumptions and expectations and be open to the Spirit. And we say, “Yeah, Jesus, we know … but change is hard.” And in this gospel story, we see Jesus struggling with this as well. But the rest of the gospel reading illustrates that change in Jesus.
- Jesus goes on to heal man born both deaf and blind → Jesus’ word choice in this healing is the key – text: Jesus took [the man] away from the crowd by himself and put his fingers in the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. Looking into heaven, Jesus sighed deeply and said, “Ephphatha,” which means “Open up.” At once, his ears opened, his twisted tongue was released, and he began to speak clearly.
- Jesus doesn’t say, “Be healed” or “Be well” as he does on many other occasions. He doesn’t command the man, “Hear!” or “Speak!” as he does when he heals a few people who cannot walk. Jesus says, “Be opened!” And before he does so, he looks up to heaven and sighs deeply. Is the sigh for the man … or is the sigh for himself? For his own journey? For his own growth and change and the expansion of his own ministry?
- Scholar: For Mark the woman is more than simply rhetorically gifted: she is prophetic. She is an embodiment of Isaiah, there to rebuke Jesus, straightening him out and opening him up. The story of the deaf mute that follows would then serve as an example of how being opened up empowers one to open up others.
- Friends, I know we want to see ourselves in the Syrophoenician woman in this story. We want to be the one bringing the light and the understanding. We want to be the one pointing out the place of growth. We want to be the one doing the opening because it’s a lot more comfortable than being the one who needs to be opened – the one who needs a bit of a reality check, the one who needs to change. And maybe sometimes we are. But think about the world around us today.
- Ways that we separate ourselves from one another
- By education level
- By career path
- By zip code
- By income level
- By political affiliation
- By so many means and in so many ways. Time and time again, we think we have the right to choose who gets to sit at the table – who gets to enjoy the feast – and who gets relegated to the place of dishonor and destitution, begging for whatever crumbs we think we can spare. We are human. We are imperfect. So yes, it’s going to happen. But we are also followers of a Savior who showed us that it’s okay to recognize when we’ve been wrong … when we’ve been stingy … when we need to be opened … when we need to change. We follow a Savior who shows us that it’s possible, and that it’s okay to not only be the one claiming the crumbs, but to also be the one who sees that sometimes, instead of simply doling out those crumbs, we need to move over and make more room at the table. Amen.
 Mk 7:24-27.
 Barbara K. Lundblad. “Proper 18  – Mark 7:24-37” in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 382.
 Mk 7:27-30.
 Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm. “Proper 18 (Sunday between September 4 and September 10 inclusive) – Mark 7:24-37, Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 4. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 49.
 Jas 2:1-4, 8-9.
 Mk 7:33-35.
Texts used – Ezekiel 36:24-28; Acts 10 (read throughout sermon)
- Fitting that today is often thought of as the end of summer → today = the end of our summer-long journey through the Dark Wood
- Certainly not the end of all our journeys through Dark Woods → find ourselves in the Dark Woods = any time we face challenges/difficulties in our lives
- Moments of pain, loss, worry, grief, fear, doubt, anger, frustration, lostness
- Unintended and unexpected part of our journeys → No one plans to pass through the Dark Wood. No one chooses to be in those moments of hurt and ambiguity.
- Journeys that are complicated and trying, to be sure, but journeys that also reveal unanticipated blessings even in the midst of the struggle
- Challenge of uncertainty reveals opportunity to trust in God
- Challenge of being emptied makes room for God in our lives
- Challenge of being thunderstruck reveals flashes of God’s inspiration and guidance among the ordinariness of our days
- Challenge of getting lost allows us to be found by a God of immeasurable love
- Challenge of temptation reveals our truest and most genuine call to God’s work in this world
- Challenge of disappearing relinquishes all the false labels that restrict us and allows us claim the true name of beloved Child of God
- Challenge of being a misfit reveals our most authentic and essential community of others traveling through the Dark Wood with us
- Elnes: People are making their way into the Dark Wood. There they are finding a sense of wholeheartedness that comes when body, soul, and the call of the Spirit converge. Some call this convergence point their place in this world. Others call it the kingdom of God.
- We’ve spent the summer talking about all of these blessings and the ways that they affect our lives and our faith. So now the question is: Where do we go from here? To answer that question, we’re going to walk through one of our Scripture stories that is a Dark Wood journey in and of itself, and we’re going to see how we come out on the other side. → going to take a mini Dark Wood journey, if you will
- Scripture story comes from Acts
- Main character = Peter → perfect Dark Wood character
- Started this whole Dark Wood journey this summer with Peter → failed attempt to walk on water when Jesus comes to his rescue
- Fitting that we end this journey with Peter as well
- Elnes: I have come to realize that Peter’s accomplishments did not happen despite his shortcomings and failures but in and through them. Peter was a Dark Wood wanderer. He was intimately familiar with experiences of emptiness, uncertainty, and temptation that open us up to the Spirit’s guidance and clarify our next steps. → Today’s story is just such an experience.
- Story begins not with Peter but with someone who will play an important role is Peter’s Dark Wood journey of faith
- READ Acts 10:1-8
- Recap of what’s been happening in Acts up to this point
- Acts = written by same author of Luke’s gospel
- Very beginning of Acts = Jesus’ ascension followed by story of Pentecost → Peter’s first sermon to the crowd
- Between then and now in our story, Peter has been sharing the good news only with other Jews – other chosen people, others who are considered worthy … part of the fold … appropriate and acceptable people. But all of that changes with Cornelius because Cornelius is a Gentile.
- Not circumcised
- Not kosher
- Not a Jew → We have to remember that throughout the Old Testament, the people of Israel are told again and again to keep to themselves – not to adopt the cultures of others, not to marry people from other cultures, and so on.
- About preserving their heritage
- About preserving their faith
- Goes back to God’s covenant with Abraham: When Abram was 99 years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Walk with me and be trustworthy. … I will set up my covenant with you and your descendants after you in every generation as an enduring covenant. I will be your God and your descendants’ God after you. → As a Gentile, Cornelius isn’t part of this covenant. He is outside the faith. And at least at the beginning of the church, Peter was pretty adamant about keeping the good news only for the people of the covenant – the people of Israel – because everyone else was unworthy in his eyes … in his And yet, as our story begins today, it begins with just such an unworthy one as that – with Cornelius the centurion who Scripture tells us is a pious, Gentile God-worshipper.
- Peter enters the story in a pretty easy-going way – heading up on a rooftop to pray – but things don’t stay easy for Peter for long
- READ Acts 10:9-23
- Peter goes up on the roof to pray but finds himself in the midst of the Dark Wood – his encounter with the Holy Spirit one of uncertainty, to say the least.
- Animals in the vision = all animals that had been forbidden for the people of Israel to eat for centuries
- Goes back to the book of Leviticus, supposedly recordings of the conversations between God and Moses as the people were wandering in the wilderness → all the “dos and don’ts” for the people of Israel – where, when, how, and why of:
- Appropriate offerings to make
- Purpose and timing of festivals
- Care/generosity for those less fortunate
- Priestly activities
- Animals that can and cannot be eaten
- There are whole chapters – long chapters! – in Leviticus devoted to exactly which animals can and cannot be eaten.
- And yet here’s Peter’s vision – text: He saw heaven opened up and something like a large linen sheet being lowered to the earth by its four corners. Inside the sheet were all kinds of four-legged animals, reptiles, and wild birds. A voice told him, “Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!” Peter exclaimed, “Absolutely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” → Peter is proud of this. He’s proud that he has remained kosher his entire life. He has remained clean, righteous. It’s a badge of honor for him.
- Uncertainty arises – text: The voice spoke a second time, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” This happened three times, then the object was suddenly pulled back into heaven. Peter was bewildered about the meaning of this vision. Just then, the messengers sent by Cornelius discovered the whereabouts of Simon’s house and arrived at the gate. → “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” Hmmm. Something tells me this isn’t really about food.
- Elnes: As he prayed, Peter probably tried to assess where the vision was coming from. Was it the Holy Spirit or his stomach talking? While the book of Acts makes the origin of the vision clear – it is indeed from the Holy Spirit – we must not assume it was so clear to Peter, at least initially.
- Peter suddenly finds himself in the Dark Wood, and he is struggling.
- Peter is struggling with uncertainty to be sure. He’s uncertain whether this message is truly from God. He’s uncertain about what it means. He’s uncertain about what he should do. He is uncertain. → voice urges him to trust … but trust is hard
- Peter is struggling with emptying himself – emptying himself of all his preconceived notions, all his prejudices, all his former ways – to make room for the instructions from the Holy Spirit. → voice urges him to empty himself … but it’s often hard – so very hard! – to get out of our own way
- Peter is struggling in the dark, hoping for something to illumine the path ahead. Whether consciously or not, he can feel the rumbling thunder of the Holy Spirit deep within him, but he’s waiting for that lighting flash – that thunderstrike – to light up the path more clearly for him. → voice urges him to forge ahead … but it’s hard to walk in the dark
- I think we could pretty easily apply just about any of our Dark Wood lessons to Peter’s predicament here.
- Temptation to do the good that he has been taught since birth – remaining ritually clean – instead of following the instructions of the Holy Spirit
- Need to disappear from the labels of kosher and unkosher, clean and unclean, pure and tainted that he has held his whole life and turn sideways into the light of God’s pureness
- Need to get lost in the moment – losing track of those rules that he believed were so crucial … need to get lost in God’s command and God’s goodness
- Need to find community in the midst of those unexpected wanderings – people wandering and wondering and wavering just like him
- And in the face of that need, enter Cornelius.
- READ Acts 10:24-48
- In the midst of that Dark Wood wandering, not only was Peter able to find blessings – blessings of trust and being filled, of guidance and inspiration, of calling and claiming and community. Not only was Peter able to find those blessings for himself, but he was also able to be that blessing for Cornelius and his household.
- Hearing and validating Cornelius’ witness
- Sharing the good news of Jesus Christ
- Baptizing Cornelius and his household, welcoming them into a community that only the day before, Peter himself would have thought closed to them
- Elnes: In taking a step toward Caesarea, Peter stepped away not only from his house in Joppa but from the figurative boat of his tradition – from nearly a thousand years of faith and practice – and set foot once again on the stormy sea of uncertainty. Only this time he was less afraid than the first. Peter knew it was safe to take a risk – even a large one – if he sensed the Spirit calling him to do so. He had learned firsthand that when you follow your deepest sense of call, you do not step out onto that sea alone. If you lose your nerve and sink when following the Spirit’s call, you need only reach up for help. You will discover yourself grasped by a power that is not ready to let you go.
- Reassurance of Ezek rings true: I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be cleansed of all your pollution. I will cleanse you of all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. I will remove your stony heart from your body and replace it with a living one, and I will give you my spirit so that you may walk according to my regulations and carefully observe by case laws.
- So as we leave this exploration of the Dark Wood behind, friends, take heart, take courage, and be reassured. In the midst of whatever Dark Wood journey you may be facing in your own life – today, tomorrow, or whenever they come down the road – you do not walk alone.
- Blessings from Elnes:
May the Spirit of the Living God,
Made known to us most fully within life’s Dark Wood:
Go before you to show you the way;
Go above you to watch over you;
Go behind you to push you into places you may not necessarily go yourself;
Go beneath you to uphold and uplift you;
Go beside you to be your strong and constant companion;
And dwell within you to remind you that you are surely not alone,
And that you are loved – loved beyond your wildest imagination,
And may the fire of God’s blessing burn brightly
Upon you, and within you,
Now and always.
For this final Sunday in our summer-long series going through the Dark Wood with Eric Elnes, we used a KT Tunstall song as our charge and benediction. It’s a song that I was unfamiliar with, but I was working on my sermon last Sunday morning and it came on the Pandora station I was listening to. The minute I heard it, I knew it was perfect to wrap up this particular series. So let the words of British pop artist KT Tunstall close this sermon experience for you:
The lyrics for this beautiful song can be found here.
 Eric Elnes. Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers). (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press), 2015.
 Elnes, 168.
 Elnes, 171.
 Gen 17:1, 7.
 Acts 10:
 Elnes, 174.
 Elnes, 177.
 Ezek 36:25-27.
Texts used – Ruth 1:8-18; Matthew 5:1-16
- Been preaching our way through Eric Elnes’ Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (And Other Wanderers) all summer
- Dark Wood = struggles we face in our lives – not places that we intentionally seek out but also not places we can avoid → Everyone finds themselves in the Dark Wood sometimes.
- Dark Wood is also not a one-time-only sort of experience → place we find ourselves in again and again
- Surprising gifts/blessings that we find in the midst of those Dark Wood journeys
- Gift of uncertainty → trusting in God
- Gift of emptiness → making room for God
- Gift of being thunderstruck → all about openness/awareness of those flashes of God in this world
- Gift of getting lost → lets us be found by God of love
- Gift of temptation → helps us discern our true calling to do God’s work in this world
- Gift of disappearing → shaking off all the limiting labels that the world places on us and claiming our most important name: beloved child of God
- And today, we come to probably my favorite gift – the one I’ve been looking forward to preaching since we started this series weeks ago: the gift of misfits. The gift of square pegs in round holes. The gift of those who go against the grain … dance to the beat of their own drummer … think outside the box. This is the gift of the weird people.
- As we come to the end of this Dark Wood journey, Elnes: Up to this point in our exploration of the Dark Wood, we’ve been considering the quest for our life’s path primarily from the perspective of our journey as individuals. It is only as individuals that we awaken to find ourselves in the Dark Wood, and each of us must find our own distinctive path through it. Yet, given the difficulties and challenges we encounter in the Dark Wood, walking alone is about as advisable as walking alone in a physical dark wood. It’s easy to get lost without the aid of companions. And it is often through [those companions] that we receive our clearest glimpses of heaven. → In a nutshell, that’s what the gift of misfits is all about – companionship. It’s about finding people who are struggling like we are – not necessarily with the same obstacles, but struggling just the same.
- Not always the companions we expect
- Maybe not always the companions we would choose
- But companions nonetheless. The gift of misfits is about finding those other companions so we can band together and travel together through the ups and the downs, the sideways parts and the rocky paths – so we don’t have to suffer the scrapes and setbacks, the lost moments and the vexing moments all by our lonesome. A few years ago, I came across an anonymous quote somewhere in my internet wanderings, and it’s a quote that I’ve loved ever since: “Make your weird light shine bright so the other weirdos know where to find you.” The gift of misfits is about letting our weird lights shine bright so the other weirdos know where to find us.
- Believe it or not, this is exactly what Jesus preaches as well!
- Today’s NT text = beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount
- Scriptural context:
- Follows Jesus’ baptism
- Follows temptation in the wilderness
- Follows Jesus calling the first disciples (Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John)
- Text just prior to what we read today says Jesus spent some time traveling throughout Galilee “teaching in their synagogues. He announced the good news of the kingdom and healed every disease and sickness among the people.”
- All this traveling and teaching and healing has stirred up the word about Jesus, and he’s begun attracting quite a crowd. So he climbs up to a higher place so more people can see and hear him. And what does Jesus start talking about? None other than … the misfits. – text: Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad. Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth. Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full. Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy. Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God. Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children. Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.” → Can you imagine what the crowd thought when they heard him say this? Here Jesus is, this brand new guy on the scene. He’s been roaming the countryside doing all sorts of amazing and unexpected things – teaching (even though he never studied with the legal experts), healing people, and talking about the Kingdom of God. Everyone’s curious about what this new and kinda weird guy is going to say. But Jesus’ pronouncement of who is blessed is almost certainly not what they were expecting to hear.
- Happy are those who are …
- Humble – other translations of Gr. = gentle, meek
- Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness = those who are not righteous → those who are broken, imperfect – those who have made mistakes and know it
- People who live harassed because they are righteous
- Not exactly the list of blessed people that the crowd was expecting
- Goes on to emphasize the importance of being misfits: You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven. → Jesus is pointing out not the things that make salt and light common but the things that make them special … unique … noticeable: that distinct, salty flavor of salt and the brightness of the light. Without these things, salt and light are useless. They must stand out, they must not blend in with everything around them, in order to be themselves. To fulfill their true potential – to be the blessing they were created to be, they must, in fact, be misfits. “Make your weird light shine bright so the other weirdos know where to find you.”
- In terms of traveling through the Dark Wood together, Elnes delineates 3 types of misfits → think of them as 3 concentric rings
- 1st misfit (innermost ring) = mentor/guide – Elnes: This is a person who has spent a little longer in the Dark Wood than you have and is therefore more familiar with trails that lead to dead ends, or over cliffs, or back out into the bright and broad streets that lead straight toward doing the wrong good. This guide isn’t always at your side, but is a wise person you can check in with regularly, particularly when the trail becomes faint or the wait between lightning flashes is long.
- Purpose for spiritual directors/advisors
- Purpose for confirmation mentors
- 2nd misfit (middle ring) = “small band of traveling companions” – Elnes: They do not have to be as familiar with the Dark Wood as your mentor, nor need they be on the same path as you. They simply needed to be committed to finding and living within their own place of aliveness, following their own sense of call that keeps them from worshiping at the shrines of the mediocre. … [These are] people with whom you can let your hair down and simply be yourself. They are the folks to whom you can reveal your triumphs and tragedies, your joys and fears, and they to you.
- These are the other weirdos that flock to your weird light
- Could be friends, family members, people at work, people involved in some of those activities that are part of your genuine call/vocation in this world
- 3rd misfit (outermost ring) = a misfit community of faith – Elnes: Just as individuals have distinct paths or callings, so do communities. … If a personal mentor could be likened to an interpretive guide in the Dark Wood, and a small group of Dark Wood traveling companions could be likened to a group around a campfire, a misfit community of faith could be likened to an alehouse in the Dark Wood. As common at alehouses in Great Britain or Ireland, those who gather in these misfit faith communities are drawn there for camaraderie and conversation, as well as the basic spirit of the place. … They cater to a diverse crowd. Yet there is a spirit within them that transcends differences and gives each its distinctive identity.
- Doesn’t have to be a church … But it is certainly my hope that this congregation may be that misfit community of faith for you.
- We’re certainly all different
- BUT, as Elnes says, I think we also transcend those differences to come together in support, in compassion, and in grace
- Naomi and Ruth in our OT reading = probably my favorite unlikely, misfit pairing in Scripture
- Naomi = woman who traveled to a foreign country with her husband and sons due to famine in Israel → while in that foreign country, her sons marry, her husband passes away, and then her sons pass away → Naomi gets word that the famine is Israel has ended, so she heads back home → And as she heads for home, Naomi is definitely traveling a Dark Wood path. She has lost her entire family – her husband and her sons. She is grieving. She is bitter. She is traveling back to a place that she knows will be difficult. As a widow with no sons to care for her, she has no holdings or property or anything of her own. Naomi knows that she will have to survive on the generosity of others. She has become the epitome of someone who doesn’t “fit in” in society at the time.
- Initial traveling companions = daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah
- Naomi convinces Orpah to turn back → return to her family so they can care for her → tearfully and reluctantly, Orpah finally agrees
- But in contrast, she cannot convince Ruth to turn back as well. Naomi tries to convince Ruth that she has nothing for her and that Israel – home for Naomi but a foreign country for Ruth – has nothing for her either.
- Ruth’s response = Dark Wood response of companionship – text: “Don’t urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord to this to me and more so if even death separates me from you.” → Something inside Ruth knows that she and Naomi need each other as they travel this road of grief and hardship and outsider-ness together.
- Fits perfectly with Elnes definition of “misfits”: What I mean by misfit is someone who is being as intentional as you are about embracing the gifts of the Dark Wood and finding their place in this world, if not more so. → Maybe it’s because it’s two women. Maybe it’s because of the unconditional love we see in both Naomi and Ruth. Maybe it’s because of the wholehearted devotion that Ruth displays. But something about these women … this journey … this Scriptural soliloquy that tugs at the heart and seems to be such a perfect illustration of misfit community.
- Elnes explains why the gift of misfits is so crucial: Countless are the processes that seek to tame the wild energy inside you, just as they seek to tame the wild energies of the world. … If you live an unreflective life, allowing these forces to shape you unawares, they will take away your name and give you a number. They will not ask what brings you alive in this world, but will demand instead that their world lives in you. They will not ask what is the specific good that you must do to live into your full humanity. Instead they will empower you to do only the good that keeps their specific processes alive and well, running seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. → But when we find our blessed community of misfits – when we find our other wonderfully weird folks – they give us the courage to break outside that box. They give us the courage to live a reflective life – one that values our name, one that encourages us to find our specific good that feeds our fullest humanity. These are the people that see us, not with the world’s eyes, but with God’s eyes.
- On the cover of your bulletins this morning: “Blessed are the weird people – the poets and misfits, the artists, the writers and music makers, the dreamers and the outsiders – for they force us to see the world differently.” Alleluia! Amen.
 Eric Elnes. Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers). (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press), 2015.
 Elnes, 150.
 Mt 4:23.
 Mt 5:3-13
 Mt 5:13-16.
 Elnes, 157.
 Elnes, 159-160.
 Elnes, 162-163.
 Ruth 1:16-17.
 Elnes, 157.
 Elnes, 155-156.
Texts used – Luke 1:5-25, 57-64; Ephesians 2:1-10
- Well, friends, we are nearly through our summer sermon series on Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (And Other Wanderers) by Eric Elnes. So far, we’ve spent six Sundays talking about what the Dark Wood is and how, even though we are often initially disheartened to find ourselves there, some of the gifts that can come from our Dark Wood experiences can be the most formative, faith-assuring, life-changing experiences we’ve ever had.
- Reminder of where we’ve been
- Dark Wood = difficult times/places along our journeys
- Journeys of life
- Journeys of faith
- Unexpected gifts that we find there
- Uncertainty → trust in God
- Emptiness/being emptied → make space for God in our lives
- Being thunderstruck → being open to the flashes of the Holy Spirit that illuminate our path and reverberate in our souls
- Getting lost → being found by a God who loves us wholly
- Last week: temptation → discerning God’s authentic and unique call for each and every one of us
- Last week, as we started talking about the gift of temptation, I said that it was a tricky one. And this week is also a bit of a tricky one. This week, we’re talking about the gift of disappearing.
- Basic idea: gift of disappearing is all about humility
- Elnes: Humility is what keeps us grounded in reality. … Humility is living by God’s vision of you, not your own. God sees a lot more than you do. … The Dark Wood gift of disappearing helps us maintain a healthy distance from self-conceptions that are either built upon a grand house of cards or upon a meager image pulled from the swamp of shame. More than most, this gift provides us a certain spaciousness and grace to move about life freely, following those sweet-spot moments that mark our path even when significant obstacles are placed before us. → Last week, we talked about how the gift of temptation helps us discern God’s truest and most authentic call in our lives in terms of our vocation – what we do and how we go about being in this world. This week is sort of the flip side of that coin. The gift of disappearing helps us discern God’s truest and most authentic claim on our lives in terms of our identity – who we are and how we go about being in this world.
- Throughout the chapter, Elnes uses a poem written by British poet David Whyte to illustrate his point.
- Opening stanza: “Turn sideways into the light as they say // the old ones did and disappear // into the originality of it all.” → That language of “turn sideways into the light” is what Elnes considers “disappearing.” It’s all about sloughing off all of the labels that the world has tried to stick to us and clinging wholeheartedly to the only label that matters: beloved child of God.
- Reminds me of a beautiful children’s book by prolific Christian author Max Lucado → basic storyline of You Are Special
- Elnes (in speaking about the power of and need for the gift of disappearing): Pride artificially inflates our self-image. Shame artificially deflates it. Both tend to set us on dead-end paths because they cause us to willingly obstruct our connection with God. Pride convinces us that we are better off living under our own power and authority. Shame convinces us that God does not love us as we are, thus we are unworthy of connection. Ironically, both pride and shame tend to fabricate an image of ourselves that is ultimately too small to live within. Too small because it is restricted by the limits of our imagination, which itself is limited by the cultural norms of our surroundings, historical contexts, family upbringing, personal fears and insecurities, and so on. → Just like the Wemmicks in the story, we so often get wrapped up in wearing all our accomplishments and all our failures for the world to see, letting them completely cover up the person that God truly intends for us to be. The gift of disappearing gives us the opportunity to reveal who we truly are both to ourselves and to the world around us.
- NT scripture reading from Ephesians this morning reminds us of the importance of humility in terms of our faith
- Text: At one time you were like a dead person because of the things you did wrong and your offenses against God. You used to live like people of this world. … However, God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace! … This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives. → “This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of.” It’s not about who your friends are, where you live, how big your house is, what’s on your dinner table, how much is in your bank account, where you go on vacation, or any of those other ways that we try to measure ourselves against one another in this world today. It’s about God. It’s about us. It’s about how crazy-much God loves us, and how desperately God wants us to understand that.
- Elnes speaks of the gift of disappearing “refus[ing] to give into any power that seeks to give us a name or identity that is too small for us. … We seek a place where the world around us can call forth something deep from the world within us in a way that points toward our highest identity. … The key is to refuse to let any situation or circumstance mark you in a way that does not reflect your highest identity. You must disappear.
- So what does Zechariah and the birth of John the Baptist have to do with this idea of disappearing into our most authentic self? Let’s explore it a little bit.
- Historical explanation – text: One day Zechariah was serving as a priest before God because his priestly division was on duty. Following the customs of priestly service, he was chosen by lottery to go into the Lord’s sanctuary and burn incense. All the people who gathered to worship were praying outside during this hour of incense offering. → This is one of those places in Scripture where we lose quite a bit if we aren’t familiar of the cultural and historical context. We hear “go into the Lord’s sanctuary,” and we think of our own sanctuary. It’s a beautiful place to be. It’s a worshipful place to be. There are certainly times when it is holy ground – moments in various services throughout the year when we feel God’s presence here in this place. But in Zechariah’s case, this was a thousand times more important than that. Zechariah was chosen by lottery to go into the Holy of Holies.
- Holy of Holies = inner sanctum of the Temple
- Remember the Temple was the only place that was considered the House of God → Jews could learn from teachers and scholars in small synagogues scattered throughout the countryside, but those weren’t considered places of worship. The Temple was the only place to truly worship.
- Temple = most holy place
- Holy of Holies = most holy spot in their most holy place
- Holy of Holies housed many things including Ark of the Covenant which contained, among other cultural treasure, the Commandment tablets Moses received on Mount Sinai
- Holy of Holies could only be entered by priests of the highest rank on ONE DAY A YEAR
- Priest tended to the altar within and the furnishings
- Rope around the priest’s waist just in case he died while he was in there – pull him out so no one else would have to enter → goes back to the ancient Israelite fear that those who met with God face-to-face would die
- So here we find Zechariah chosen by lottery to perform this incredibly honorable and sacred duty. He’s in the Holy of Holies, and an angel of the Lord appears to him to tell him that he and his wife are going to have a child … and we find Zechariah clinging to the broken identity that the world has given him – text: The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son and you must name him John.” … Zechariah said, “How can I be sure of this? My wife and I are very old.” → In the face of this miraculous pronouncement … to this face of Gabriel, God’s most powerful messenger … in the holiest spot on earth, Zechariah says, “Really? Are you sure? Somehow I doubt it. Can’t happen. Not to me … not to us.”
- Gabriel’s response: The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in God’s presence. I was sent to speak to you and to bring this good news to you. Know this: What I have spoken will come true at the proper time. But because you didn’t believe, you will remain silent, unable to speak until the day when these things happen.”
- Gr. “you will remain silent” = preceded by powerful, attention-grabbing word (idou) which means whatever directly follows it is exceptionally important
- Most often view Zechariah’s term of silence as a punishment for his doubt BUT Elnes presents another idea: By striking Zechariah deaf and mute, God is not punishing him for failure to accept his true identity. God is blessing Zechariah, helping him accept his identity. How? Imagine how Zechariah’s world might change over the coming nine months while Elizabeth is pregnant. He will be more of a silent observer of life than an active participant. The last sound Zechariah would have heard before his hearing was taken away was the sound of his son’s name being spoken by the archangel Gabriel: “His name will be John.” John is an abbreviated form of the Hebrew name Jonathan, which means “Yahweh [God] is gracious.” Can you imagine how your world might change if, for nine long months, you heard nothing, and said nothing, yet the last words you heard constantly ran through your head, “God is gracious”? → In essence, Zechariah disappears from his life for a bit. He cannot hear what is going on around him. He cannot give voice to his thoughts, needs, desires, prayers, hopes, or dreams. When Elizabeth finally shares with him that she is pregnant, he cannot even laugh out loud as Sarah did centuries before. And yet in disappearing, Zechariah finds a strengthen and a trueness of his identity in God and in God’s path for him – an authenticity that leads him to finally declare (through the written word) when the child is born, “His name is John.” And in that naming – in claiming that authentic identity for his son and also accepting his own authentic identity that God has given him – Zechariah’s hearing and speech are restored.
- So friends, let me leave you with a question this morning.
- Elnes: This story [of Zechariah] ends practically begging the question, What is the miracle that gives you voice in the world? What treasure have you found in the darkness that blesses you and others? → What element of your truest and most authentic self is God leading you to claim? To cling to? To disappear into? And what part of your identity is God encouraging you to let go of? To escape? To disappear from? Amen.
 Eric Elnes. Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers). (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press), 2015.
 Elnes, 126-127.
 Max Lucado. You Are Special. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books), 1997.
 Elnes, 125-126.
 Eph 2:1-2a, 4-5, 8b-10.
 Elnes, 127-128, 129.
 Lk 1:8-10.
 Lk 1:13, 18.
 Lk 1:19-20.
 Elnes, 140.
 Elnes, 141.
The Second Temptation of Christ by William Blake
This sermon was preached Sun., Aug. 12, but because we headed out for a family vacation directly after church, I wasn’t able to post it until now.
Texts used – Psalm 103; Luke 4:1-13
- Well, friends, since it’s been a few weeks since we’ve been together and tackled this journey through the Dark Wood, let’s remember where we’ve been and what we’ve been up to throughout the summer.
- Dark Wood = place/time of challenge in our lives
- Often places that we don’t want to go initially
- BUT often places that give us powerful revelations about who God is and who God is calling us to be in this world
- Often places that reveal some powerful gifts in the midst of the darkness and ambiguity → talked about …
- Gift of uncertainty = teaches us to trust
- Gift of emptiness = reminds us to make room for the moving of the Holy Spirit
- Gift of being thunderstruck = reverberations of God’s guidance and inspiration in our lives
- Gift of getting lost = gift of being found by a God who loves and cares for us
- Today, we’re jumping right back into our journey through the Dark Woods and exploring the various gifts that we find there by tackling a difficult one: the gift of temptation.
- Important clarification: not the typical kind of temptation – temptation to do things we know we’re not supposed to do → We’re not talking about the temptation to do all those things we know we’re not supposed to do – sloth, gluttony, hate, lust, and all those other sins, deadly or otherwise. What we’re talking about today is actually much more difficult, much more subtle, and much harder to wrap our brains around than your everyday, run-of-the-mill temptations. Believe it or not, what we’re actually talking about is the temptation … to do good. Yup. You heard me right. The temptation to do good.
- Elnes’ description of the gift of temptation: In itself, doing good is not the problem. Doing the wrong good, however, is entirely the problem. By the wrong good, I mean any good work that is not yours to do. It may be someone else’s good to do, but not your own. → gift of temptation is all about discernment
- Elnes’ greatest example of the gift of temptation – of being tempted to do the wrong good = Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness
- Context of Jesus’ overall ministry: this is just the beginning
- Comes right on the heels of Jesus’ baptism by his cousin John in the Jordan River
- Beginning of today’s reading: Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. → Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness … sounds like a pretty intense, physical version of the Dark Wood, doesn’t it?
- Now, I have to say that using this passage in terms of Elnes’ idea of temptation to do the wrong good is interesting. Most of the time, when we read this passage or hear it preached, the focus is on how temptation is bad. The temptation comes from the devil – the Adversary, if you translate the Hebrew word literally – so we focus on the push and pull of good versus bad. In a nutshell: “Satan tempts. Jesus refutes. Temptation is bad. Be like Jesus.” We inherently think of the temptations that Satan lays before Jesus as evil because of their context – they are, in fact, temptations laid out by Satan. So they must be evil by their very nature and by the nature of the one presenting them, right? But have we ever actually looked at the three temptations that Satan presents? Have we ever considered them at face value?
- Elnes makes an interesting point – point illustrated by our bulletin cover image this morning
- Image = William Blake’s painting “The Second Temptation”
- 2nd of three painting inspired by this Scripture reading
- Painted as illustrations for John Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost”
- Now, what’s interesting about this image that Blake painted is the way Satan looks. He’s not the guy with horns and a pointy tail brandishing a pitchfork like we see in cartoons. In Blake’s depiction, Satan is actually even more beautiful and composed and appealing-looking than Jesus. – Elnes: If you did not know that the painting was of Jesus’ temptations you might not realize that the man on the left is the Adversary. … If anything, the man looks pious and sincere. … Blake recognizes that someone with the spiritual stature of Jesus would be even less tempted by overt evil than we are. If you were the Adversary and wanted to tempt someone like Jesus, you’d have to convince Jesus you were on his side while rolling out the biggest temptations you could muster. All your temptations would have to be about doing good.
- So let’s think about those 3 temptations that Satan lays out for Jesus.
- 1st temptation: The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” → In a world in which 815 million people go hungry every day … in a world in which 17 million children under the age of 5 suffer from severe acute malnutrition every day … in a world in which 3 million children die from hunger every year – that’s one child every 10 seconds! … in a world in which we produce more than enough food to solve this problem but cannot get it together enough to actually solve this problem, we cannot argue that Satan’s idea of turning stones into bread is actually a bad one. Jesus himself goes on to feed thousands through his own miracles not long after this. So Satan’s first temptation is to help Jesus feed first his own starving body and then the hungry of the world. Sounds good, right? Of course! But that is not the good that Jesus came to do.
- 2nd temptation: Next the devil led him to a high place and showed him in a single instant all the kingdoms of the world. The devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.” → This one sounds easier – of course we don’t want to worship Satan, the Adversary – but as Elnes says, “Imagine the temptation of being able to change a few of the world’s laws, or direct public and private resources to their best use, or create world peace?” How many wars have been fought … how many atrocities committed … how many people killed “in the name of God”? Which god? Which interpretation of God? Based on which version of God’s word? So much pain has come from people trying to impose their own conclusions about God on someone else’s life or culture or country that it must have been tempting for Jesus to circumvent all that suffering by simply becoming the One-and-Only Man in Charge. Sounds good, right? Of course! But that is also not the good that Jesus came to do.
- 3rd temptation: The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; for it’s written: He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.” → This temptation gets at motivation and at “proving it.” Think of the playground taunt that all children endure at some point or another in their lives. They claim they can do something or that they have something wonderful, and the unbelievers around them say, “Oh, yeah? Prove it!” The only things that matter – the only things that count – are the things we can see with our own eyes. Imagine how much easier it would have been for Jesus to gain followers … to silence the Pharisees and the Sadducees once and for all … to avoid the pain and humiliation of the cross if he’d just thrown himself off the tallest building in Jerusalem and floated down to the crowded, eye-witness-thronged street below. All of the arguments that we have today about whether God is or is not would be unnecessary. Sounds good, right? Of course! But even that is not the good that Jesus came to do.
- Elnes: The point is none of these activities would harm anyone. Not initially, anyway. And Jesus does feed the hungry, change the political equation, and perform miracles at various points in his ministry. Yet none of these individual activities were ones that Jesus was called to devote his time and energy to. … Part of Jesus’ calling was to live more fulling into his human identity than anyone else had ever done before.
- You see, the gift of temptation is all about discerning your special and specific call in the world – discerning that “sweet spot” that God has especially for you. At the end of all of my emails are a few of my favorite quotes. One of them is from American poet and theologian Frederick Buechner: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” The gift of temptation is all about finding that place – that place where your unique gifts and passions are being utilized in a way in which you are being fulfilled and the world is being fed all at the same time.
- Elnes provides some clarification: The reason the Dark Wood gift of temptation is so important is that it produces results – like exhaustion – that reveal fairly quickly whether you are on a path that is central to who you are and what you’re here for or are on a side path. … The temptation to do the wrong good is one of the greatest gifts you can receive, as it continually challenges you to discern between the good you are called to do and the good you are specifically not called to do. → So the gift of temptation is a litmus test of sorts for whether or not we are following our true call from God.
- All about why and how we’re making the decisions we’re making – what is motivating those decisions
- Is it passion, joy, spiritual contentment?
- Is it logic, reason, and strategy?
- Elnes: Finding your distinctive path in live involves more than applying reason, logic, and strategy. It requires instinct and imagination. Instinct because the surest sign that you’re on your path is not reason alone but wholeheartedness. Imagination because your true place in this world tends to be found just beyond the edges of your immediate awareness. It’s a bit like walking in the dark. → This sort of goes back to our Puritan roots in America and in the Reformed tradition because somewhere along the line, we seem to have adopted the idea that if we’re doing something and it’s bringing us great joy, we’re enjoying it too much. Work is supposed to be work.
- Quote from BBC mini-series version of A Little Princess – Miss Minchin, one of the headmistresses of the school: “School is school, sir. It’s not supposed to be fun!” → That seems to be how we’ve come to think about many aspects of our day-to-day being in this world: it’s not supposed to be too much fun, and if it is – if we’re enjoying it “too much” – then it must be selfish or self-serving in some way. “Self-sacrifice is self-sacrifice, sir. It’s not supposed to be fun!”
- Doesn’t necessarily have to be about your job – could be a hobby, a side endeavor, a volunteer opportunity → The point is, when you feel that passion arise in you and you feel the world around you responding in a positive way, you’re on the right path.
- This is where our 2nd Scripture reading comes in this morning – Psalm 103. It is a psalm of praise – a song extolling the blessings of God and the overwhelming and overflowing joy that the psalmist experiences in God’s presence and God’s goodness.
- Text: Let my whole being bless the Lord! Let everything inside me bless his holy name! Let my whole being bless the Lord and never forget all his good deeds … The Lord is compassionate and merciful, very patient, and full of faithful love. … The Lord’s faithful love is from forever ago to forever from now for those who honor him. And God’s righteousness reaches to the grandchildren of those who keep his covenant and remember to keep his commands. … All you heavenly forces, bless the Lord! All you who serve him and do his will, bless him! All God’s creatures, bless the Lord! Everywhere, throughout his kingdom, let my whole being bless the Lord! → Everywhere throughout God’s kingdom – in the sunny, easy patches as well as the wandering journeys through the Dark Wood – let your whole being bless the Lord.
- Elnes: My friend Bruce often observes that the question is not “Are you saved?” The question is, “Are you used?” In other words, have you given yourself over to the Spirit in such a way that you are willing to allow it to lead you on your path and bring you to fullness of life? Are you willing to move beyond the protestations of your logical, strategic mind, and your desire to figure out everything for yourself, to follow the sweet-spot moments that reveal where your soul yearns to travel in this world in conversation with God? So let me ask you, friends: As you travel through these Dark Woods – as we travel together along this winding, up-and-down path – as you listen for the thundering reverberations of the Spirit’s leading – as you go out in search of the special and specific good that God has for you to do, are you used? Amen.
 Eric Elnes. Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers). (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), 104.
 Lk 4:1-2a.
 Elnes, 116.
 Lk 4:3.
 Action Against Hunger, “World Hunger: Key Facts and Statistics,” https://www.actionagainsthunger.org/world-hunger-facts-statistics?gclid=Cj0KCQjwtb_bBRCFARIsAO5fVvEjt9rDJwsxvSkW8y9TO7i6XHBW6YiRm-o9cZAMpsr0P7jvSRT1YeAaArfkEALw_wcB. Facts from the 2017 UN Hunger Report, accessed Aug. 12, 2018.
 Mercy Corps, “Quick facts: What you need to know about global hunger,” https://www.mercycorps.org/articles/quick-facts-what-you-need-know-about-global-hunger. Udated Apr. 28, 2018, accessed Aug. 12, 2018.
 Lk 4:5-7.
 Elnes, 117.
 Elnes, 117, 118.
 Elnes, 105, 108.
 Elnes, 106.
 Ps 103:1-2, 8, 17-18, 21-22.
 Elnes, 118.
Texts used – 1 Samuel 3:1-10; Luke 15:1-10
- About 15 years ago, Universal Studios came out with a fantastic movie called “Bruce Almighty.”
- Basic storyline:
- Jim Carey = Bruce, a reporter at a local news station who’s tired of doing the “fluff” pieces → wants more recognition and notoriety that comes with being an anchorman
- Bruce’s girlfriend, Grace (Jennifer Aniston) = tries to get him to stop and smell the roses sometimes – enjoy life and have faith instead of being focused on himself all the time
- One day, Bruce has pretty much the worst day ever. He’s fired. He gets beat up. His beautiful, vintage sports car gets damaged. He gets in a fight with Grace. His dog refuses to house train. All bad. All the time. Bruce finds himself in the Dark Wood for sure.
- Friends, we cannot deny that we feel lost like Bruce sometimes.
- Lost among the distractions of the world around us
- Lost among our own ambitions and desires
- Lost among relationships (healthy or otherwise)
- Lost … just plain lost. And we don’t like feeling lost, especially when we’re in the midst of the Dark Wood. Being lost makes us feel helpless, stressed out, and shatteringly vulnerable. Whether we’re speaking metaphorically or whether we’re literally behind the wheel of our car and unsure of which way to turn, being lost is a profoundly unsettling experience. But we also cannot deny that part of life is getting lost. The road of life is not a straight, easy, simple road. It’s winding and hilly and full of challenging things like blind corners and unexpected detours. → sometimes getting lost is how we figure out that we’re in the Dark Wood in the first place – we think we know exactly where we’re going and how we’re going to get there … until suddenly we look up and realize we have no idea how we got where we are or how to go elsewhere
- Reminder: Dark Wood = times of challenge and struggle in our lives → spending the summer exploring the many unexpected blessings we can find in the midst of the Dark Wood using Eric Elnes’ book Gifts of the Dark Woods: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers)
- Talked about how uncertainty leads us to trust
- Talked about how emptiness reminds us to make space for God
- Last week: talked about being led by those thunderstruck moments – flashes and reverberations of God in our lives
- Today, we’re going to be talking about what a gift and a blessing it can be to actually get lost.
- Elnes holds up both the uncomfortableness and the necessity of getting lost: Our journey through life is never a straight one, even if we are paying attention to our sweet-spot moments. The path zigzags. … We would probably be fine with all these twists and turns, more or less, if someone issued us a printed itinerary. But God seems to have forgotten about the itinerary. Instead, at each point where the journey needs to make a turn, we start to feel increasingly lost. In my own journey, this feeling of being lost prompts me to pay more careful attention to the signals that the Holy Spirit sends me. I pray and meditate longer and with greater attention. → Sometimes, we need to figure out that we have no idea what we’re doing or where we are to discern where God is calling us to go. Taking us out of the ensconced-ness of our comfort zones makes us open our eyes in ways that we never expected … sometimes in ways that we never wanted to have to open them in the first place. But it’s only when our eyes have been unexpectedly opened in this way that we can finally begin to see those flashes of God that lead us along our new path.
- Situation that Samuel finds himself in in our OT reading
- Reminder of who Samuel is: Samuel’s mother, Hannah, was desperate for a child → husband had 2 wives and the other wife had children while Hannah didn’t, so she would taunt Hannah mercilessly → Hannah went to the temple to sacrifice and pray → of 1 Sam: She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.” → Eli the priest saw Hannah weeping and praying and eventually blessed her and her prayers → Hannah becomes pregnant and gives birth to Samuel → when Samuel is 3 yrs. old, she brings him to live in the temple to fulfill her promise to God – text: For this child I prayed; and the Lord has granted me the petition that I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.
- And so in our text for today, we find Samuel as a young boy living in the temple and serving Eli, the priest. – text: Now the boy Samuel was serving the Lord under Eli. The Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known. → “The Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known.” Into this haziness, into this unknownness, into this Dark Wood of a time and place for the people of Israel, God begins to speak to Samuel. But Samuel doesn’t recognize God’s voice. Samuel doesn’t recognize God’s call. So he’s a little bit lost.
- Text: Now Samuel didn’t yet know the Lord, and the Lord’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him.
- God calls Samuel once → Samuel thinks it’s Eli calling him and runs to his side → Eli tells Samuel to go lie down
- God calls Samuel again → Samuel again runs to Eli’s side → Eli again tells Samuel to go lie down → I think we can imagine Eli getting a little frustrated at this point. He’s old. He can’t see anymore. He’s basically trying to take an afternoon nap. And this overanxious boy keeps running into his room, waking him up, and asking him what he wants when he never called for the kid in the first place!
- God calls Samuel a 3rd time → Samuel again runs to Eli’s side → And this time, Eli finally tumbles to what’s going on. – text: Then Eli realized that it was the Lord who was calling the boy. So Eli said to Samuel, “Go and lie down. If he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down where he’d been. Then the Lord came and stood there, calling just as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” Samuel said, “Speak. Your servant is listening.” → At first, Samuel is very thoroughly in the dark. He’s lost. He has no idea what’s going on. And in that lostness – in that disorientation – he’s open to suggestion. He thinks he knows what’s happening. He thinks he knows the way. He’s certain that Eli must be calling him because he can’t imagine another option. And yet that other path is there. Even before he’s aware of it, God is literally calling him to that path.
- Elnes highlights a small but very important detail in Samuel’s story – Eli’s instruction: If he calls you, say, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.” → Samuel’s response when God’s calls the 3rd time: “Speak. Your servant is listening.” → “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.” “Speak. Your servant is listening.”
- Elnes: Samuel repeats every word but one. He says, “Speak, for your servant is listening,” but leaves out the word Lord. This is classic Hebrew narrative technique indicating that Samuel still had his doubts. Yet despite his doubts about where the intuition was coming from, Samuel’s heart is indeed open, and he is rewarded for continuing to listen.
- Even when we don’t know it, even when we can’t feel it, even when we don’t even think to expect it, God is with us in the midst of our lostness. → NT passage this morning = all about lostness and the joy of finding
- Part of a chapter in Luke all about lostness
- Today’s text = parable of the lost sheep and parable of the lost coin
- Just after today’s text = parable of the lost son (prodigal son)
- Telling of these parables is (not surprisingly) precipitated by grumbling and judgment on the part of the Pharisees – text: All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
- Addresses an important distinction → You see, one of the reasons that we can sometimes feel like we’re lost is because we don’t feel worthy to be found. We think that this time, we’ve screwed up too big, too hard, too profoundly. We think that whatever it is we’ve done takes us too deeply into those Dark Woods to ever be worth looking for let alone being found. The Pharisees thought that the people gathering around Jesus – those horrible tax collectors and (gulp) sinners!! – were beyond deserving to be found. And yet, through the parables that he tells, Jesus makes two things abundantly clear:
- 1st = God is so determined to find these lost ones that leaving them lost doesn’t even cross God’s mind – text: Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it? … Or what woman, if she owns ten silver coins and loses one of them, won’t light a lamp and sweep the house, searching her home carefully until she finds it? → Jesus makes it common sense. Of course you would track down the lost sheep. Of course you would hunt for your lost coin. You don’t just leave precious things lost. And neither does God.
- Leads to 2nd thing Jesus makes clear = these lost ones are indeed precious to God – text: When he finds [the lost sheep], he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders. When he arrives home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep.” In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives. → In their lostness and in being found, these people are more precious to God than any other. And friends, at one point or another in our lives, we are all “these people.”
- Elnes: When it comes to finding our place in this world, mistakes don’t matter nearly as much to God as they do to us, provided they’re our own mistakes. We tend to make the most serious mistakes when we’re trying to be someone else.
- When we are lost, it gives God the opportunity to find us, to sweep us up and remind us that we are treasured, that we were missed, that we are worth seeking. And it gives God the opportunity to direct us once again – to set our feet back on the path, to redirect our gaze, to reorient us and show us the way we should go. But we have to be open to that leading – not only open to the idea of it but open to listening and watching for it.
- Guidance of God is not always flashy and Hollywood-worthy and obvious – Elnes asks an important question: I wonder how many of us miss the Spirit calling us into great and wonderful work (or offering powerful help in a time of crisis) simply because we expect the signs to be more clear and for God to act with more supernatural bravado? → If we think about last week when we talked about the gift of being thunderstruck, this sort of goes hand-in-hand with that idea. Sometimes, the leadings and direction of the Holy Spirit are those bright, hard-to-miss lightning flashes that illuminate the path in front of us. But sometimes – most times! – God is much more subtle than that. The Holy Spirit nudges and whispers far more often than she shoves and hollers. And it will happen not just once but over and over and over again.
- Elnes: People who find and live into their calling rarely do so without getting lost first. Yet since there are no straight or clear paths in the Dark Wood of life, they do not cease to get lost after once being found. Rather, those who embrace life in the Dark Wood gradually learn that the regular experience of getting lost is one of the most important gifts we can receive. So friends, let’s get lost. Amen.
 “Bruce Almighty,” distr. by Universal Pictures, released May 2003.
 Eric Elnes. Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers). (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), 86-87.
 Eric Elnes. Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers). (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press), 2015.
 Elnes, 84-85.
 1 Sam 1:10-11 (NRSV).
 1 Sam 1:27-28 (NRSV).
 1 Sam 3:1.
 1 Sam 3:7.
 1 Sam 3:8c-10.
 Elnes, 98.
 Lk 15:1-2.
 Lk 15:4, 8.
 Lk 15:5-7.
 Elnes, 99.
 Elnes, 98.
 Elnes, 83-84.