Category: Preaching

Sermon Remix: Elijah and the Prophets of Ba’al

Sermon Text: 1 Kings 18:20-39 

The Hebrew Scriptures of our Bible, what we call the “Old Testament” are full of what I like to call “flashy” stories. Sure, the New Testament has some pretty flashy stuff as well and Jesus being raised from the dead is the flashiest of them all, but when it comes to a nice dramatic story, this story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal is just about the flashiest story of all.

The story starts out with Elijah, the prophet, asking his people a question: “How long will you go around limping between two options? If the LORD is God, than follow him, but if it’s Baal, then follow him.”

What a great question How long will you go around limping between two options? You can hear Elijah’s frustration as he asks the question. Baal is sort a false god who is contrasted with Yahweh, Elijah’s God, the God of Judaism and Christianity. In our story, Elijah is seriously outnumbered. There are 450 prophets of Baal, but only one of him. He proposes a test – the prophets of Baal will put a bull on an altar, and so will he. Then they will wait to see which God burns up the offering with fire. The prophets of Baal go first. They cut up their bull and wait for Baal to burn it up with fire. Nothing happens. The prophets of Baal start to get nervous, walking around and around. They even cut their arms with swards — highly dramatic. Elijah isn’t a very gracious competitor at this point. He starts taunting them “Maybe your god is on vacation” he says “Perhaps he’s snoozing and you need to wake him up?”  Now it’s Elijah’s turn to put Yahweh to the test. He’s not messing around. Instead of just asking Yahweh to rain fire down on the offering, he decides to be a bit more dramatic about it. Elijah asks the people to dig a ditch around the offering. Then they pour water all over the offering and fill the ditch with the water. Elijah wants to be very clear: Yahweh will not only send fire, the fire will burn up the offering and all of the water. So now it’s time for the big showdown. Elijah is very plain in his request to Yahewh, he says “Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.”  I find this part of the story really compelling as well because Elijah is proving, by his request to Yahweh that the whole point of this show is to bring glory and honor back to Yahweh. “Answer me so that this people may know you.” Not “answer me so I save face” not “answer me because all of these people are depending on me.” Answer me so that this people may know you are God.

God answers the prayer, loudly and clearly. God answers, clearly and unequivocally. The fire consumes the stone, the offering and the dust. It even licks up the water in the trench. 

I’d like to lift up a few things about this passage and what it might be saying to us about living a devoted and faithful life as we try to live our faith in the world.

First, Elijah, though he is outnumbered 450 to one believes that Yahweh is important enough to take a stand for  He starts with that important question “how long will you go around limping between two options?” Elijah knows something important: the prophets of Baal are worshipping a false God.  As I read this story, I’m not so interested in thinking about it in the sense of “my God is better than your God.” That is, I’m not convinced that the message for us, here, as we listen to this story is that we ought to prove to faithful adherents of other faiths that Yahweh will win some sort of contest. On the contrary, I believe Christians are called to interfaith dialog and understanding. I am interested, though, in speaking up against the false gods of our time. We might each define the false gods of our time in different ways. One way for me to identify them, I think is to look for the “ism” words: consumerism, materialism, narcissism,, sexism, racism, nationalism. These are the false gods that we’re asked to speak out against in our age and culture. When we’re asked to bow down to the god of the marketplace, the god of owning the most stuff, the god of “whatever I need and want must be best” the god that my gender, my race, my country are the best. These are the baals of our time. Sometimes we try to dabble in both worlds, just like the folks in our story. What would Elijah say? How long will you go around limping between two options.

The next thing I’d like to lift up about Elijah from this story is that he’s willing to do the work to bring people along. When Elijah first makes his proposal that the people are wavering between false gods and Yahweh, the text says that the people were silent. They didn’t even speak a word. When it’s time to put Yahweh to the test, though, Elijah has brought them along. He builds the altar, he cuts up the bull, he gets people to haul the water. It makes me think of the work that we do in our community and in the world to speak out against the false gods of our time. It’s hard work, and if we’re doing it right, we’re not doing it alone, we’re drawing others in to the story with us.

Finally, Elijah is letting God be God in this story. At the beginning of this chapter, in a part that we didn’t read this morning, we learn that this whole thing is taking place so that the drought can end. Why is this important? Well, two things: one it makes the water part all that much more impressive. Elijah is pouring water on the offering to show that it’s not spontaneously combusting. Second, Baal is supposed to be the god of storms, so if the drought ends without this “showcase of the gods” the people might take it to mean that Baal has gotten his power back. We already talked about the fact that Elijah is outnumbered here, but I didn’t mention yet that this whole showdown is taking place on Mt. Carmel. Guess where Baal is supposed to live? That’s right. Mt. Camel. So all of these prophets of Baal are actually allegedly on Baal’s home turf here. There is so much stacked up against Elijah in this story. So much. He knows that if he does “win” this encounter, it will be for one reason, and one reason only: Yahweh is truly God. It’s not that Elijah isn’t righteous (he is), it’s not that Elijah didn’t work hard (he did) but the offering is burned up for one reason alone and it’s this: The Lord, indeed is God. The Lord, indeed, is God. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the Creator, Redeemer and sustainer of us all, Amen.

Shepherds — A Christmas Message

Preached on December 24, 2014 at Northwood Presbyterian Church


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What do you know about the shepherds? What have you heard?

Were shepherds poor or rich? Were they young, or old? Were they men or women? Were they well respected, or were they lower on the social ladder?

Shepherds were poor. Their work was a day to day sort of work where they were always dependent on the needs and desires of wealthy landowners.

Shepherds were young, mostly.

Shepherds were young men, but they were also young women.

Most important to know and reflect upon this day is that shepherds were not well respected in society. They were considered dirty and untrustworthy. In fact, the testimony of a shepherd was inadmissible in court because it was considered unreliable. Shepherds were nearly invisible members of society. The lowest of the low. Untouchables. This week I learned “To buy wool, milk or a kid from a shepherd was forbidden on the assumption that it would be stolen property” I wonder who the modern day shepherds would be in our society. Migrant farm workers? Mentally ill homeless people? Refugees? Vagrants? Prisoners?

The shepherds speak to me this Christmas because I see them there, and I know what they mean to this story. I know that God came to the world wrapped up as a tiny baby in the midst of these shepherds for a reason and purpose. Shepherds might not have been able to serve as witnesses in court, but they were witnesses to the greatest act of love the world has ever known.

More than this, they are the ones that actually receive the good news. Luke tells us that it’s to the shepherds that the angel says “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah,the Lord.” It gives me chills to think about who the angel is speaking to when the angel says this. To you is born this day.

We are blessed in this sanctuary with the soft glow of candlelight and the cozy comfort of companionship. As we sing carols and celebrate the birth of our savior together, we feel that God has done something amazing in this world.

Yet the shepherds remind us of an important fact that we must never forget: Jesus was not born in here. Jesus was born out there. The angel brings the good news to those who are the least worthy to receive it, to society’s forgotten bottom rung, to the least of the least.

It is my prayer that this is a message of hope and solace for those of us who are gathered here, as we think of those who are out there in some way. There are people we know who are lost and wandering and not with us in these pews. We trust that the angel brings the good news to them just as it brought the good news to the shepherds out in the fields.

For those who are in prison or homeless or marginalized in some way, we trust that this good news is heard, loud and clear. For us, too, when we feel like outsiders, when we feel like we are the lowest of the low, the least understood, the least worthy, this message is for us.

I wonder if the shepherds trusted much in God. I suspect that they might not have trusted much in God at all because they were not welcome in the synagogue or among the religious elite. They were invisible people. Yet God breaks through all of that, and talks to them through the angel.

What if this is you, today? What if you don’t feel like God speaks to you at all? What if you don’t normally come to church because it doesn’t seem like there is a message for you? What if God decides to speak to you anyway? What if it doesn’t feel like Christmas in your home or in your life or in your heart and somehow in some kind of way out there God speaks to you with a voice that is loud and clear?

It’s an unbelievable message really. It’s startling and shocking. It can not be dressed up or dressed down and the message is this: Jesus Christ is born to us where we need him most.

And so I invite you, I invite all of us, as we come to the table and light candles and sing carols to open our hearts and listen to how Jesus Christ is being born in our lives and in our world, right where we need him most.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer of us all, Amen.

6 thoughts on plagiarism, creative expression, and sermon writing

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I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity recently as my book inches (and simultaneously sprints) toward the finish line. The whole process of coming up with ideas, letting them take root in my mind, writing them down, spiffing them up and sending them out into the world (with a team of people) has been hard work, and it has been a very personal process. I’ll write more about how the publishing process has intersected with my personal and professional development, but right now I want to weigh in on some thoughts about sermon writing, creative expression, and plagiarism. This is a topic that comes up a lot ministry circles, usually when someone gets busted for ripping off someone else’s work. As always, these are my thoughts and opinions, and don’t necessarily represent the thoughts and opinions of any institution I’m associated with.
1. Preachers have to be idea factories which is both invigorating and draining at the same time.  Pastors who preach every week are called to come up with new, fresh, and relevant information to speak to their people for at least 10 sometimes up to 30 or more minutes every week. That’s every seven days. The invigorating part of this is that our brains are always turned on to creative stories. We’re constantly looking for snippets of things that can be woven into sermons. Sunday comes, whether we’re ready or not. The invigorating part about that is that we always have to be plugged in to the creative energy within ourselves, we have an “excuse” to go browsing through current news stories and the New York Times Sunday section. When I want to relax and watch TED talks or browse what’s current on Twitter, I feel like even my “down time” can be useful. The draining portion of that is the exact same thing. Sometimes I feel like I can never turn my brain off.
2. Imitation is flattery, plagiarism is an insult. I think preachers need to be very clear on this point: if you rip off my work I will not only be insulted, I will use any means available to me to make sure that it never happens again. My own opinion is that this is not a usually grey area. I shake my head when classically trained pastors claim to not know it is wrong to steal someone else’s work. We know. We went to graduate school. We know the difference between imitating someone’s style, retelling their stories in our own words and straight up plagiarism. Preachers should never shy away from using someone else’s ideas or stories or inspiration, but they should always always acknowledge when they have done it. When they heard a story “somewhere” but aren’t sure where, they should just state that: “It didn’t happen to me, but I remember hearing a story one time about a…” Google is a preacher’s best friend.
3. Preaching and sermon writing is a creative work and those who preach are regularly giving away pieces of themselves. I could write about this one for a long time, but what I’m getting at is simple: be gentle and don’t take it for granted. That goes for both the writer and the hearer. Preachers take their ideas, they mull them around, and they offer them to communities of faith, with great hope that their words will make a difference in the lives of others. Certainly preachers also believe that the Holy Spirit is at work through the whole process and that the preachers is often just a vessel for something greater. Still, when a preacher is getting up in front of you, she is painting a picture, singing a song, building a bridge. The takeaway, I think, is simple, be gentle.
4. Some sermons are great; some are terrible. Oh well. Except for instances where a preacher has unlimited time for sermon preparation and research and/or is exceptionally gifted for the work of preaching and teaching (Hi, Rob Bell! I heart you!) there are weeks when the sermon isn’t the work of art everyone was hoping it might be. The best advice I ever got on this I got from the Rev. Doug Learned, PCUSA pastor and mentor who probably got it from his mentor: “Feed the people, Traci, that’s your task. Some weeks they’re getting a steak dinner and sometimes it’s PB&J, you just have to feed them. That’s your task.” I live with this analogy every week. I told it to my congregation the first week in the pulpit: “You’d better get ready for some PB&J weeks,” I told them, “but it’s my prayer you never leave this place hungry.”
5. Preaching is a two way street.  Rob Bell talks about this in his lectures on preaching, and I relate to it all the way down to my toes. He says that when people say to him “You did a good job” he wants to respond, “And how did you do?” Preaching is about conversation. It’s talking and listening. Good preaching inspires something in the listener. (Incidentally, on this, I am the first “listener” of my own messages…)
6. The question we should be asking about preaching isn’t “is it good?” but rather “Is it effective?” or “Does it inspire change?” Again, I think the art analogy is a useful one here. When I think about the types of art pieces that have changed my life for the better, it’s hard to say that it was “good.” I think of a piece I saw once in the San Antonio Museum of Art… it was a beautifully framed pair of ballet slippers with the title “desaparecido.” The artist was Colombian. It spoke volumes, but it was terrifying. I was drawn to it and I’m thankful for it as a work of art, but I can hardly call it “good.” What do we mean when we call preaching “good…” do we mean entertaining, or funny, or easy to stomach, or do we mean something else?
I think I could easily come up with six more but I’ll save that for another time because, well… I have a sermon to write.