Sermon: Jesus Had A Busy Weekend (February 4, 2018)

Jesus Had a Busy Weekend

A Sermon for The Eliot Church of Newton, UCC

Rev. Reebee Girash

February 4, 2018

Audio recording, including the Liturgist’s Reading:

Text: Mark 1:29-39



Mark’s gospel, earliest of the four Biblical accounts of Jesus’ life, is not long on detail. We can understand – these were handwritten and hand copied texts, often shared orally. To get to some of the details we have to look at archaeology and historical context; for others we have to compare which verb used in multiple stories implies shared meaning between them. And sometimes, to develop a nuanced story, we use theological imagination.


Today, we’re going to share the same story, told four times, using all these ways to explore its meaning.


Here the story for the first time, as written in the Gospel according to Mark, 1:29-39:



Mark 1:29-39

1:29 As soon as they left the synagogue [in Capernaum], they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.


1:30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once.


1:31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.


1:32 That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.


1:33 And the whole city was gathered around the door.


1:34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.


1:35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.


1:36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him.


1:37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”


1:38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”


1:39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.              




Let me tell the story to you again.


Jesus had a busy weekend. You know, he was down by the Sea of Galilee when he called Simon and Andrew and James and John, fisherman, to follow him. They didn’t leave home right away – he went with them into Capernaum, a village on the shore of the sea where Simon and Andrew lived with their families. They took him to their synagogue on the sabbath. And this visitor – he preached, he taught, and he cast out a demon. This would have been enough for one Sabbath, mind you, maybe Jesus thought so , too – because when they left the synagogue that day, they went to Simon and Andrew’s house. Maybe he wanted to rest up.


Their house: some archaeologists say it was right next to the synagogue, “its northern wall right under the synagogue balcony…to the east of the house, just outside the entrance, was a large open area where a crowd could assemble.”1


But there was no moment to rest for Jesus. There, at home, was Simon’s mother-in-law, sick with a fever. This was an ordinary fever, mundane except that fevers killed people pretty often in 1st century Palestine. Jesus went to her and raised her up. That’s what the text says. Jesus raised her up. Now, wait a minute, that’s important: Jesus raised her up – the Greek is Egeiro, and it is the same verb Mark uses for a lot of Jesus’ healings – and it is the same verb used for Jesus’ resurrection. People, it is only a little stretch to say Jesus resurrected her – he restored her to her life and community, “he restored her to her rightful place and role.” 2 And then she stood up, raised and resurrected, to serve. To serve, the verb is the same as the way the angels ministered to him in the desert, the same as the women who ministered to him even to the cross, the same verb – diakoneo – as when Jesus said, I came not to be served but to serve. She was the first to Deacon.



Night came, the sabbath ended, and new crowds gathered there at Simon’s house, but Jesus did not turn them away. The whole town of Capernaum, those who had heard demons were cast out, those who heard this new preacher, those who had seen James and John drop their nets, those who saw her raised up – they were drawn to that extraordinary grace.


It was a busy weekend for Jesus and early that next morning, he tried to slip away, just for a little while, to a quiet place. Don’t we all need a quiet place? A solitary, quiet, wilderness place. Jesus, who could preach and heal and call, also needed to pray. But they drew him back, and the busy weekend continued.




Hear the story, from Simon’s mother-in-law’s view. Now, Mark does not give us her name, but I would like to give her a name, just for this morning. What name will we give this woman? (In worship, someone suggested Orpah -a name from the book of Ruth, and that is what we used.) Here is how I imagine the story might have felt to her:


She woke up that morning with a fever and body aches and a hacking cough, and Simon said: Orpah, go back to bed. I’m going to bring someone who can help.


It mattered that Simon saw her need.


As Orpah lay in bed, in the house that shared a wall with the synagogue, she heard his sermon. Orpah heard that demon shout out. Orpah heard the congregation gasp. And then, this man came to her house. Simon brought the healer to her! It mattered the Simon saw her need. And it mattered that this extraordinary visitor touched her, lifted her up, raised her.


Yes, the fever was gone.


But there was something else happening.


Orpah was restored to her community, given new joy and new purpose.


I tell you she leapt up and started to plan what she could do to follow him. She began to serve, to minister. She set the table and opened the door and made it possible for more people to know him and follow him. Orpah started the first house church, maybe, made this a place for people to gather near to Jesus.


And then, perhaps… Did she empty her shelves and call her neighbors and ask them to bring food and wine? Did the crowds stay there, balling cloaks into pillows, listening to his good news until they fell asleep in the courtyard? In the quiet before the dawn, did she hear him stir? Did she take him water, and figs and olives? Did she point him to the back gate where maybe he could slip out unnoticed? Did she slip back inside to pack her bags, to join Jesus, Simon, Andrew, James and John on their journey?


She was raised up to serve; she would follow him the rest of her days.




Hear the story once more:


It takes place in a little village of Newton, three highway exits away from Boston.


As soon as she left worship that day, she drove up the hill to see him. He was just out of the hospital. She had organized the whole congregation to bring meals and on this day she brought soup, and sat with him a while. And then there was dessert, and he practically leapt up out of the chair. She took him by the hand and she raised him up. He couldn’t get to the sanctuary so she brought the church to him, restored him to community, healed him.


He sat at his computer, typing. It’s cold up here. Our grandchildren are well. I read a good book that I’ll send you a copy of. How are you? Mundane, ordinary phrases but they translate to something powerful. They were sent to a man behind bars, a thousand miles away. And those words mean: we have not forgotten you. You are part of our community. You are loved, and known, and remembered.


She called him to talk about Sunday School, from two continents, from two generations, they talked about how they would teach this story. What games would use up fifth grade energy and what words would make sense to the fourth graders and which craft wouldn’t take too long to prepare. And what it meant was that the children know they are loved, treasured, nurtured here.


They gathered in the chapel, around the piano, on a chilly weekday evening. They practiced and they memorized and they listened and they sang. They laughed and hugged and held fellowship and made joyful noise. And the words of the song are: Glory be to God.


She arrived early this morning, with gluten free bread and Welch’s grape juice. She smoothed the tablecloth, and took the thick pottery chalice and paten out of their cabinet, and set the table. She invited the servers, pondering who smiles joyfully and who is excited to serve. It translates to: this is the Open Table, where Christ is the host and all are invited to the feast. You are welcome here.


Early this morning, with the sun still low in the sky, they gathered here, together, in this quiet place. It’s not deserted – it is filled with God’s people. They gave up brunch and skiing, the Times, and extra sleep, they braved the cold and the introverts chose to be with people, they all gathered here in this room to pray, to give glory to God, to feast, to be welcomed, to be restored to community, to be healed, to glimpse for a moment the kindom of God.








1   Douglas Hare, Westminster Bible Companion, Mark volume – quoted by Kate Huey in Sermon Seeds,

2  Kate Huey,

3  Though not quoted directly, other sources of inspiration for this sermon include the Women’s Bible Commentary, Matt Skinner’s Commentary on this passage at, and the Feminist Companion to Mark, edited by Amy-Jill Levine.

Sermon: Navigation (January 7, 2018 – Epiphany observed)


A Sermon for The Eliot Church of Newton, UCC

Rev. Reebee Girash

January 7, 2018

Audio Recording:

Text: Matthew 2: 1-12

1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,
2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;
4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.
8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.
10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.



Ezra Dyer couldn’t navigate across town anymore.  Entirely dependent on his GPS and smart phone, he had an “atrophying sense of direction, an inability to get anywhere without a digital Sherpa. I recently got lost on my way home from the airport….It’s not that my instincts were wrong. It’s that I no longer had any instincts.”[1]  He decided to rebuild his navigational instincts and this past summer, Ezra set out on a thousand mile journey with nothing but a paper road atlas and a general sense of where East was.  He followed road signs.  A couple of times, he stopped to ask directions and actually found himself talking with kind strangers, folks who actually wanted to help, the most helpful of whom had lived in the area long enough to remember how to offer directions.  He re-discovered the loveliness of the journey that comes between the starting point and the destination.   Sometimes, he navigated by the position of the sun, and sometimes, he drove in star light, with only the exit billboards to guide him.  “…Along the way, I reactivated the inner compass that once guided me… [it’s useful], like knowing how to do division on the back of an envelope even though your phone has a calculator. Because I won’t always have an omniscient supercomputer in my pocket. But I bet I can find my way home from the airport.”[2]
Imagine the Magi, wise men from the East, scholars from the place of the sun’s rising,[3] rolling out their charts and maps each night by the light of their campfire. Studying the stars. Awaking to the epiphanai – the revelation, the giving of light. Setting their course. Walking across vast swaths of land with nothing but their charts and the night sky to guide them.

Well, no. There was something extraordinary to guide them.  There was the star that rose out of Jacob (Numbers 24:17).
There was the one that Zechariah proclaimed:
By the tender mercy of our God, there was the
the dawn from on high that broke upon them
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide their feet into the way of peace.”

They were guided by a heavenly sign, so clear, so extraordinary, that they knew it was a manifestation of God’s glory. An epiphany of God’s presence.  A revelation of God’s good news. An announcement of the Messiah. An unveiling of divinity.

And they were able to follow the star.

Are we able to follow the star?  What distracts us? Do we have the skills to navigate the spiritual landscape? Do we even look up anymore?

These magi – maybe three, maybe seventeen – not kings, but scientists, scholars, and travelers – they were able to follow the star for a long time. For two years, historians speculate, on the way to the Anointed One.  But they wound up in Jerusalem, city of King Herod, not Bethlehem, city of King David. They stopped nine miles off from their destination. In celestial terms, nine miles wasn’t very far away. But in spiritual terms, the distance from palace to manger was vast indeed.

Imagine, they rode their camels, slept in tents, ate dried meat and fruit and whatever travelers ate in those days, made small talk with each other, unrolled and rolled their star charts, pointed to the night sky again and again – for two years – all the while believing their charts and maps and the star would lead them to the one born King of the Jews.  And they were close, and one night they passed by a city gate and read a sign: “King Herod’s palace, two blocks” with an arrow pointing the way.  I can imagine one of them saying, “Friends, the Star isn’t telling us to stop here.”  And the rest, weary, thirsty: “Yes, but the Star has kept us walking two years.  Let’s just check to see if this is the place.”

They walked up to the palace and said, “Ah, this is the place a king would be born.”  But perhaps that same skeptical one said, “Something feels wrong here.”

They entered the court and asked Herod, “Where is the child?”  And perhaps that same one, watching the barely masked fear on Herod’s face, watching the scribes and servants scurrying around the elaborate coure, thought to himself: “We have navigated by a star, followed the light, sought salvation and hope, sought mercy and love, sought a child.  And here is one who navigates by fear and greed.  All the people around him gravitate to the sparkle of power and wealth but that is not the star I followed.”

God’s glory may be where we least expect it. In a little town nine miles out from the seat of power. In humble family, and a powerless toddler. In a barn. Held by a day laborer and an unwed teenage mother.

Even scientists, astronomers, magi, wise people, the privileged and powerful – and you and me – can find the glory of God, can follow the star to the messiah, can find the true King, when we recognize, “this kingdom is not like the Roman-sanctioned empire that divides those who are free and those who are slaves, those who are Jews and those who are Greek…men and women.”[4] This kingdom is led by a holy child and founded on justice, equality, and mercy.

The trick is, not getting distracted by the palace.

I am not talking about getting distracted by wealth and power. Honestly, you’re not sitting in a UCC church on a cold Sunday in January 2018 if you have set your sights on wealth, power, money and authority. If your GPS destination is Herod’s Palace, this is not a rest stop on your journey.

Nonetheless, King Herod’s palace draws us in.

There is another way in which even sometimes wise people are distracted and detoured right now by the palace.

We get so scared, angry, frustrated and gas-lit by the headlines that are unable to move forward.  Anger keeps us from navigating. The headlines keep us glued to the web rather than moving in the world. Our frustration about all the ways the world is broken keep us from building the kingdom where we can. And King Herod draws our focus continually back to him. Make no mistake, anger is as powerful a form of attention as praise.

Those ancient travelers left the palace with new directions, these from the prophet Micah, to make their way nine miles south.  The one with his eyes on the star felt the consolation of being in the right place. And all of them were overwhelmed with joy when they reached their true destination.  A palace built of wood and straw; a court filled with the humble; a tiny, powerless, child-king who would show the world the Way of Love.

Perhaps that one skeptical, determined magi had a final word to say to his friends: “We cannot go back to Herod.  We cannot be complicit in his plan.  We have reached our true destination.  Let us…

‘Steer clear of royal welcomes
Avoid a big to-do
A king who would slaughter the innocents
Will not cut a deal for” any of us.’”[5]

Friends, this is our decision, too:
To follow Waze or follow the Way.
To trust the world or trust the Star.
To direct our gifts to the worldly king or to the refugee child
To detour to the palace or to build the kingdom.
To navigate by GPS or or by God PS.

Let us set our GodPS to love, mercy, compassion, justice.
The Star will guide us: if we trust him.




[3] Another translation of “the East” is “the rising” – anatole – referring to the rising of the sun.

[4] The African American Lectionary Commentary, Regina Langley, January 4, 2009.

[5] James Taylor, Home By Another Way.

Sermon: God Sends Us People (November 12, 2017)

God Sends Us People

A Sermon for the Eliot Church of Newton, UCC

Rev. Reebee Girash

November 12, 2017

Audio Recording, Including Liturgist’s Reading:

Text: 1:1-18

In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons.

2The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. 3But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, 5both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

6Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. 7So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. 8But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 10They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.”11But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?12Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 13would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” 14Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. 15So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16But Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” 18When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.




Eighteen years ago this summer, I got a phone call from my Aunt Catherine. Aunt Catherine was one of the saints who passed this year and we named aloud last Sunday. 18 years ago Aunt Catherine called me – I was 25 and living in Somerville – she called me and told me to come home. Lois needs you here.


When I was six, Lois and Ed Kavich adopted me. They set aside the ease of retirement to raise another child. They re-oriented their lives to journey with me, and I was so blessed. While I was in college, Pop died, leaving Mom on her own. After college, I moved to Boston. Two years later, Mom got really sick and was on permanent dialysis. I would visit for a while, and she would send me back to Boston, back to my new life, back to my new sweetie (John). I would air drop in for a weekend and will myself to think things were okay.


Then Aunt Catherine called. Come home. Lois needs you here.


At 25 I was so angry at my Aunt. At 43 I am so grateful for that phone call.


I went home.


But that’s where the story twists.


I was six weeks from starting grad school. I was pretty devoted to John. So my Mom said, You’re not moving back here. I’m moving to Boston.


Where you go, I will go…your people shall be my people.


Mom became Ruth to my Naomi.


Somehow, in six weeks, we found assisted living, her church helped us clean out her attic and pack, we got her house on the market, John met us at the Manchester airport and packed the car so tight that I had to brace my feet against the back window.

And so we started a new journey together.



This is where the portion of Ruth we read today ends. Ruth and Naomi have committed to each other, and they have started their journey to Bethlehem, together. They have no idea what will happen. They travel only with the promise that they are not alone.


Jessica Tate writes, “This is where we often find ourselves…in these empty places, uncertain of the end of the story. We do not know how, or if….our hope will be restored. We are left with simply a promise – a promise that we are not alone. It is a promise that finds incarnation in Ruth. Ruth will cling to Naomi no matter what. She will be with her wherever she goes….This is God’s promise to us, as well – that God will be with us, no matter what…This is how God acts. God clings to us, refusing to allow us to bear our despair and emptiness alone. In so doing, God shows us loving kindness that sows in us hope and fullness, in short, salvation.”1


A former parishioner of mine once said, “God doesn’t send me the abstract miracles that I prayed for as a child. God sends me people.”2 To Naomi, widowed, having buried two sons (there’s no word for a mother who buries her children), homeless, starving, God sent Ruth. Ruth could not magically reverse Naomi’s tragedy – indeed Ruth’s life was devastated, too. What Ruth could do was to pledge to be with Naomi, no matter what. Even though she could have found her own way out of this tragedy, she pledged to stay with Naomi.


It is no small thing that Ruth does, throwing her lot in with Naomi. She could have gone back to her family in Moab. Orpah did, and no one blamed her. But Ruth chose the unknown path, and clung to Naomi, whom she loved. Together, they could journey with courage.



God sends us people. The people who pledge to us that they will walk beside us on the road, whether it be through forest or desert, whether it be through despair or redemption, these are the people who carry us, until the tears are wiped away. These are the saints who bring us the message of hope, that we will get through this life, together, and with God’s grace.


In the book of Ruth, God is mentioned but God doesn’t speak. There is no burning bush, no parted sea.


But God’s true name, God’s true nature, is right there in the promise Ruth makes to Naomi.

In the letter of 1 John we hear:

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.


God is love. So, God’s nature is right there in the promise Ruth makes to Naomi:


I will go with you.


You are not alone.


God sends Ruth to Naomi, and Ruth incarnates God’s love.


So here is the rest of the story.


I wish I could say those next four years were perfect for Mom. They were not. Dialysis was hard, Boston was so cold in the winter. And she didn’t get to spend nearly enough time with friends and family from Tennessee. But. She made some friends here, my church really did become her church, my people became her people, she saw the ocean and she saw me graduate and get married and get ordained.


Ruth and Naomi’s next years weren’t perfect either. When Ruth and Naomi arrived in Bethlehem, all of Naomi’s family and friends were excited to see her. But still, these were poor widows, without resources. They depended on the generosity of their neighbors. They waited to glean grain from the fields at the end of the harvest. Ruth found a protector in Boaz, a relative of Naomi’s and a rich man who admired Ruth and how she had cared for her Naomi. And Ruth, a Moabite widow, became his wife, became the great-grandmother of David, became the ancestor of Jesus.


I think Jesus inherited something from Ruth. It is all well and good that Jesus called his disciples to follow him; called us to follow him. But the reason Christians have said yes to that call is because Jesus came to us, to share our common lot, to walk the unknown journey with us, to embody God’s own love and cling to us, whatever may come.


Thanks be to God, who sends us people,

and who offers us hope of redemption and restoration and new beginnings. Amen.



Friends, find the people God has sent you. Journey with courage. And don’t give up before God has a chance to show up. Amen.

1  “Between Text and Sermon, Ruth 1:6-22”, Interpretation, 64 no 2 Apr 2010, p 170-172.

2  Marilyn Votaw

Sermon: Quiet (August 13, 2017)

Because of the events in Charlottesville on August 12, we began worship on August 13 by hearing the invitation of the UCC’s Minister for Justice and Witness, the Rev. Traci Blackmon:

Might you consider beginning your worship tomorrow morning with prayer for our nation and the people of Charlottesville in particular?
Will you pray for the wounded. The healers. The witnesses. The warriors. and the dead inside? Will you pray for the families of those who have died? And will you call out white supremacy by name and rebuke it in the name of Jesus….


Hate has no weapon that LOVE will not conquer.

-Rev. Traci Blackmon


We declared that we do indeed rebuke racism and white supremacy. We prayed that even as we worshipped, we would be moved to recommit to racial justice.



A Sermon for the Eliot Church of Newton, UCC

Rev. Reebee Girash

August 13, 2017

Audio Recording – Including liturgist’s reading:


1 Kings 19:9-18

19:9 At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”


19:10 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”


19:11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake;


19:12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.


19:13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”


19:14 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”


19:15 Then the LORD said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.


19:16 Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place.


19:17 Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill.


19:18 Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”




The very first night I was back on campus a wild storm came up of the sort that only happens in summer, in flat lands, prairie and big sky places, such as southern Minnesota. I lived that year in a dorm that overlooked the soccer fields, and beyond them, the Carleton Arboretum. The storm rolled slowly and mightily across the sky, lightning building and flashing in small pockets of mile-wide clouds, thunder almost continuous booming. I have never before or since seen a storm like this one. Even so I have no excuse for my completely stupid action: I ran out into the storm. I stumbled down the hill and on to the middle of the soccer fields, which I had entirely to myself, and I laid down on the field and watched the sky and I jumped up and danced in the rain. And I felt the glory of God. God was in the storm.


I came back into the dorm, soaked, amazed. And my roommate gave me a talking as only a Texan with her back up can do, and I never ever again danced in the thunderstorm.




“19:11 Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake;


19:12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire….”


This must have surprise Elijah, that God is not in the dramatic, mountain-splitting wind; that God is not in the rumbling earthquake; that God is not in the heat of the fire.


Because, you see, God was in the fire for Elijah, before. God was in the storm for Elijah, before.


King Ahab, of the northern kingdom of Israel when Elijah prophesies, King Ahab marries a follower of the god Baal – a woman whose name you know, Jezebel. Our 21st century ears may wonder what the fuss is about marrying someone of a different religion but in chapter 16 we find out that followers of Baal, now including Israel’s king, practice child sacrifice.


So Elijah, God’s prophet, challenges King Ahab and the prophets of Baal. Standing on the top of Mt. Carmel, with 450 prophets of Baal on one side, and just Elijah to represent the LORD, the contest is met. The people of Israel are gathered on the slopes of the mountain to watch. Elijah sets the terms of the contest:


“You call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the LORD. The god who answers by fire—he is God.” (1 Kings 18)


The prophets of Baal called out from morning till noon. “Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered.


Elijah starts to strut. When it is time for him to call on the LORD, it is like he is putting on a magic show. Before I call on the LORD, he says, poor water all over this wood. Again. Again! AGAIN! Then, he calls on God.


And the fire of the LORD falls and burns up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licks up the water in the trench.

39 When all the people see this, they fall prostrate and cry, “The LORD is God!”


God is in the fire. Surely, God is in the fire, that time. And the people’s hearts are changed.


Ah, if only Elijah had taken his bow then.

Instead, he slaughters all of the prophets of Baal.


And Jezebel, the queen, takes offense and promises to slaughter Elijah. Who, surprisingly for one who can all down fire and rain, runs away.


South, through Judah, out of the northern kingdom, to the wilderness, Elijah runs in despair and fear for his life. I have to wonder, too, if Elijah is ashamed of the killing he has done.


God sends a new message to Elijah in the wilderness: food, and water, strength for the journey, a path to Mount Horeb (also known as Sinai). Elijah thinks he alone follows the LORD, but God’s voice reminds Elijah that he is not alone, that there are faithful people in Israel, that God is with him and them. On Mount Horeb comes “the assurance that God’s cause has a future in the world that does not depend only on Elijah’s personal success or lack thereof.”1 Elijah has seen God in fire and in storm, but God’s love and renewing strength come to him in the stillness. In the dark night of his soul, God comes in a whisper.



Never since that night on the soccer field have I sensed God’s presence in such dramatic ways. There have been storms, but God has not been in the lightning, There have been sunsets over the ocean but God has not been in the wind or the waves. Yet…God is in the still small voice; the soft, murmuring sound, the low whisper, the quiet. When I pause, when I make room, when I listen.


And the thing is, I had no power to bring about an experience of God in the storm. It just happened, out of the blue, and perhaps I should not have experienced God in that storm. None of us can call God down in storm or fire, on cue. On the other hand: we can make room for God in the silence.


We might want to meet God in fire, in quake, in thunder. But most of us won’t ever meet God there. Instead, we’ll meet God in the silence, in the empty spaces, in the mystery, in the questions, in the moments we make room for her.


Perhaps this is the good news for us: God doesn’t arrive on cue – but we can invoke God’s presence by listening in the silence. By making room and by listening for the still small voice.










1  Dan Epp-Tiessen, “1 Kings 19: The Renewal of Elijah” in the Spring 2006 volume of Direction: A Mennonite Brethren Forum

Sermon: Wild Grapes

The Fruits of the Vineyard

A Sermon for Calvary United Methodist Church, Arlington

August 18, 2013

Sermon Video available at this link.



Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19
80:1 Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth

80:2 before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us!

80:8 You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.

80:9 You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.

80:10 The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches;

80:11 it sent out its branches to the sea, and its shoots to the River.

80:12 Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?

80:13 The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it.

80:14 Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine,

80:15 the stock that your right hand planted.

80:16 They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down; may they perish at the rebuke of your countenance.

80:17 But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.

80:18 Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name.

80:19 Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Isaiah 5:1-7
5:1 Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.

5:2 He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.

5:3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.

5:4 What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?

5:5 And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.

5:6 I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.

5:7 For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!



Oh, how I love this season, food wise.  You can come home from the farmers market and have an entire meal from raw fruit and vegetables picked that morning.  You can put up pickles from backyard summer squash as big around as your arm. You can stain your whole face red from raspberries and blackberries.  You can have salad every single day from backyard kale and still have too much kale. Your neighbors can give you a five pound bag of plums because they can’t keep up with what their trees are making.

On a recent Wednesday Zac and I came back from the farmers market and ate peaches.  Ridiculous, big fuzzy ripe juicy peaches. He said his favorite food in the whole wide world was a ripe juicy peach.  

Praise God from whom all blessings flow, amen?

In every season of abundance there is sadness, though.  Our downstairs neighbor is famous up and down our street for his tomatoes.  Most years they are prolific and they ripen at the size of softballs and we have to sneak out half of what he insists we take and give them to other people, under cover of darkness.  But last year and this year, about half of the tomatoes have blossom end rot.  The fruit goes bad before it ripens.

“He expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.”

Now, here’s where there’s a problem with translation.  Wild grapes sound just fine, don’t they?  Wild grapes, couldn’t you just make a nice jam out of them?  They sound like honeysuckles, beach plums, the shallots that volunteer in your compost.

Wild grapes, the way Isaiah and the vineyard keeper mean it, are not surprise delicacies.  No, what’s translated as ‘wild grapes’ are actually inedible, entirely unusable, and they smell bad.  

God the gardener, fertilized the soil from which ancient Israel would grow.  Planted and watered and tended the garden. Watched the plants reach up toward the sun.  Waited for the fruits of God’s own labor to emerge. God loved the garden. And, according to the prophet’s metaphor, the fruit was bad before it could even be harvested.  The ancient Israelites did wrong in the sight of God, who had chosen them and blessed them, turned the soil and watered the garden.

In this passage, there is some wordplay built into the Hebrew that is not apparent in English…but makes the text even more poignant.

“First, the sweet wine that God desires was justice (mishpat), but instead, the people produced bloodshed (mishpach)….Second, God also anticipates “righteousness” (tsedeqah) but has instead heard only a “cry” (tse‘aqah).”

Isaiah does not hesitate to tell us what ancient Israel did, that they might be labeled smelly and inedible and spoiled.  “they [did] not defend the cause of the widow and orphan (1:23), they coveted and stored up wealth for themselves (1:29), they oppressed the poor (3:14-15), they acquitted the guilty and deprived the innocent of their rights (5:23).

God, by contrast, called the people to act with kindness, mercy, respect, righteousness, justice.

And the people produced bloodshed.  They were violent and greedy. That doesn’t sound familiar at all.

And God said, I’m going to rip out the vines and dry out the vineyard and O mercy.  The people were in trouble. The people are in trouble.


Let’s rewind to the beginning of this passage.  It starts as a love song.  Isaiah loves God, and God the divine gardener loves the vineyard.  Quickly it turns into a sad country ballad, but this chapter is rooted in the idea that God loves the people.  

God loves the garden that has grown up. God’s love is what has nurtured the plants.  God loves the people. You can be angry at those whom you love, but Love endures even anger.  

Thank goodness we have the rest of Isaiah, to remind us that another day is coming, for the people.  “11:11 On that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that is left of his people…”

The prophets, even when they are calling the people out for their misbehavior, remind the people of God’s love.  I’m thinking of Hosea 11,

“How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?…
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
9 I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath,” (vv. 8-9).

Season after season, the gardener replants.  Offers the people new guidance and love, mercy and second and third and fourth chances.  God’s mercy endures forever. Praise God from whom all mercy and blessing flows.

Remember the psalmist this morning prayed, “Let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.”

Are we, the fruit of God’s garden, sweet grapes or wild, stinky ones?  Do we feel the strong hand of God on our shoulders, steadying us, guiding us?  Do we bear fruit worthy of the divine gardener?

80:18 Then we will never turn back from you; God, give us life, and we will call on your name.

80:19 Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Think on it: God’s strong right hand, steadying us.  God’s loving voice calling us back from the brink.  The gardener does not just scatter the seed, randomly, and come back at the end of the season.  

And yet.  We are called to bear, and to be, fruit worthy of God’s love.

This image, of fruit worthy of the divine gardener’s efforts, runs throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian testament.  

Jesus says, we will be able to recognize righteous prophets “by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:16) and he says, The kingdom will be “given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”  Matthew 21: 43

But, God is not just the gardener, separate from the plants.  Think about John 15 in which Jesus gives us his gardening lesson:

1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower…5 I am the vine, you are the branches.

When the grapes couldn’t grow on their own, God did even more work in the vineyard.

There is something about being one fruit, on a vine with many others, in a garden full of plants, all connected to a strong vine and rooted in good earth, all tended by the great gardener, that ought to give us comfort.  We are not alone. We live in God’s world. We are part of God’s good garden. Christ is the vine, and we are the branches, and we can bear good fruit. We can be God’s sweet, wonderful grapes.

There are so many ways Calvary church is a sweet harvest for God: as I was writing this sermon, I read of the gun buy back program that this congregation is sponsoring in town.  That’s just one place where you are turning away from a culture of violence and offering a word of mercy in our community. And it is poignant indeed to see churches turning swords into ploughshares and guns into groceries.  Your youth and mission team traveled to (Kentucky and West Virginia) on a mission trip this summer, and your summer vacation bible school is focused on Heifer Project this year. Good grapes and abundant sweet fruit, indeed.

Today I’m wearing a stole made by my sister, for the occasion of my ordination a decade ago.  It is embroidered on one side with a cross, and on the other, with a vine and branches. It reminds me that I – that we – are connected to the strong roots of the vine of Christ.  There is a strong right hand on our shoulders. There is a gardener pruning and fertilizing, watering and tending, guiding our vine up and over the grape arbor. There is a gardener, expecting us to bear fruit.  Good, sweet tasting, healthy fruit. Fruit that looks like justice, mercy, and love.


Friends, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Let us go forth to be God’s good, sweet fruits. Amen.