Endings and Beginnings

Passage: 1 Kings 1, excerpted
Date: November 24, 2019
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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Being a pastor is a weird thing. People – especially people who don’t do church – have no idea how we spend our days and imagine we have a direct line to God, our trusted counselor and mentor and advisor. I would reckon that every pastor I know has been asked how she or he came to ministry. People – especially those who don’t do church – can’t imagine why we chose this line of work or how we got here.

My story is pretty simple and probably typical. I grew up in church, in a big Presbyterian church in Houston, Texas, where I was very active as a teenager and was given abundant leadership opportunities. I had a second family there – my friends and peers but also the adults who came alongside me and shepherded me. The summer after my junior year in high school, a summer youth intern asked me if I’d ever considered going into ministry. The seed was planted.

But it would be a while before that seed took root. I went off to college where I most decidedly did not go to church. When members from Young Life or the evangelical fellowship knocked on my dorm room door, I politely told them I had already found Jesus and thanks for checking. I might make it to church on Easter, but I might not.

I needed to leave church before coming back. My adolescent experience was so full and exceptional I had a sense it couldn’t be repeated. I need to go back to zero, to reset, to find my way home again in a church.

Historian of religion Mircea Eliade once wrote that “the symbolic return to chaos is indispensable to any new Creation.” (Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries, 1967) I suppose that’s what I was doing all those years ago. Transitions are tender times, and chaotic ones, and scary and exciting.

All those things – chaos, fear, excitement – were at play in the transition of power from King David to his son, Solomon. At seventy years old, David was coming to the end of a complicated, inspiring, confounding life. We might read between the lines and understand that if David had made a plan of succession for which particular son would assume the throne, he either didn’t remember it or was not enacting it. He was feeble and no longer leading. In that power vacuum, one of his sons, Adonijah, stepped in, the heir presumptive.

And then, as though they had been waiting in the wings, Bathsheba and Nathan entered the story again. Commentators are not in agreement – were they simply asking David to follow through on what he had promised, or were they taking advantage of his weak state and making their own power play? Whatever the motivation, the end result was the same: Solomon became king.

It must have been a frightening time for those who were in the know. Would Adonijah and Solomon go to war? Would the fragile unity created under David’s reign disappear? Would David be remembered as an ineffective king? Would the new king favor some but not all? Without a king looking over them, would the people suffer?

Eventually the chaos settled and Solomon became king, for better and for worse. Bathsheba and Nathan exited the stage, and the story continued under new leadership.

That pattern of something ending, a period of chaos, and a new thing is seen throughout the Bible stories we’ve looked at this fall. The perfection of Eden ends with disobeying God, and Adam and Eve are thrown into chaos when they leave the garden and must start a life of toil and pain. But God is still present, and provides for them, and gives them a family. Jacob has many sons, but the older brothers are jealous of Joseph, so they sell him off. The chaos of grief and guilt envelop the family, even while Joseph adjusts to life as an Egyptian. Reunion is the end of that story and a restoration of relationship. The people of Israel experience forty years of chaos in the wilderness only to be granted freedom and a land flowing with milk and honey.

I wonder what these stories of transition might say to us. I have come to believe that life is just one long transition, that as soon as we get settled with one thing, something new comes at us. Cooing babies start to walk and parents rush to put bumpers on coffee table corners and move the cat food dish out of reach. An assembly line worker finds himself replaced by a robot and must find work that he’s never been trained for. We slip and fall and break a bone or two; arthritis sets in, or we have surgery and get better and suddenly new vistas emerge. 

The world is in a constant state of transition, whether it be the forming of a new nation, change in borders, or the disruption of war and then the disruption of peace. Refugees are in a constant state of transition, of fleeing and journeying and living in a temporary tent city year after year. 

What do we do when the chaos of whatever transition we’re experiencing looms over us? What do we do when we see a power vacuum of whatever kind? 

Of course our response to the chaos and opportunity of transition is largely personal, driven by our personality and our prior experience. Some of us –and I speak as one who knows what she’s talking about – like a bit of control in our lives. We like to influence the way things work out, and we rush into chaos and try to make order of it (as if we could). 

Some of us surrender to the instability. We’re passive, we wait for someone else to do something and do not enter the fray. And some of us watch – we notice things, we look for patterns to emerge, we actively see the change from what was to what will be.

Does all this apply to our life of faith? People who study these things note that there are some who sit in the pews who learn about God and the Bible in their childhood Sunday School and never move beyond that understanding. Others immerse themselves in church and God only to find religion wanting, the cause of more bad than good. Or they find that church is eating up all their time and not feeding them at all, so they walk away, slip out the back door, and become one of the “dones” – done with church.

And some happily embrace the transition in their faith. They find themselves letting go of dogma and outdated understandings of scripture. They read theology and philosophy and embrace, rather than answer, the question of why bad things happen to good people.

Where is God in all of this? Where is God when the bottom has fallen out, when the door has shut and no windows appear to be opening, when the king is old and forgetful and his children are fighting for the throne?

I would say, simply and plainly, that God is the constant amid all our transitions. God is the still small voice inside the whirlwind. When the trapeze artist is about to make her big move and lets go of the bar and is midflight, God is the one who catches her. Or, as the mother rabbit said to her wayward child in the classic children’s book The Runaway Bunny, “if you become a bird and fly away, I will be a tree that you come home to.”

God is the constant in the midst of chaos. I hope you have had that experience of God. I have known that often – but usually in hindsight. Still, it helps to be reminded of this love that is with us.

So I’d like to try a little something with you this morning, borrow from the African-American tradition of call and response. I will say a phrase, and you will answer, “God is there.”

Here we go.

In the beginning: God is there.
In the hospital room: God is there.
In refugee camp: God is there.
At the Thanksgiving table: God is there.
In the town of Maji: God is there.
In the Habitat home: God is there.
In the school cafeteria: God is there.
In the counseling session: God is there.
In the lawyer’s office: God is there.
In the halls of government: God is there.
In the weaver’s co-op: God is there. 
In the march of protest: God is there.
In the lullaby sung by a sleep-deprived parent: God is there.
In the house that feels empty: God is there.
In the balcony: God is there.
In the choir loft: God is there.
In the pew: God is there.
In Mainspring and NEFP: God is there.
In the Head Start programs: God is there.
In the mosque and temple: God is there.
In the shelter: God is there.
In your hands: God is there.
In your feet: God is there.
In your heart: God is there.

“Fear not,” God says. “I am with you.” Amen, and may it be so.