“Alone, to Pray”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Romans 10:5-13
Matthew 14: 22-33

 

Romans 10:5-13

Moses writes this about the righteousness that is by the law: “The person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that is by faith says: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the deep?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the message concerning faith that we proclaim: If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Matthew 14:22-33

 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.

But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

~~~~~

 

In this story of Jesus and his disciples,
…after their great meal, the feeding of the five thousand,
…after hearing Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist was beheaded by Herod…

Jesus has had one LONG day, has he not?

 

Any one of these things – hearing evil news of murder of one’s own family member, traveling, unexpectedly working and healing all the sick, teaching the crowds, feeding the crowd – any of these would aloe have made for a full day.

And here Jesus is, dismissing the crowd by himself. 

Notice, he has sent the disciples on ahead of him to cross the sea for a rest.  But Jesus stays back to “dismiss the crowd.”

 

Jesus is the distraction.
Jesus is the feature.

The people are there to see him, and he takes those sacred moments and hours – to the end – to see them,
to be with them,
to heal them,
to teach them.

 

Now, I’d have recommended precisely the opposite scenario.

Of all his crew, I’d guess that it’s Jesus who has had the most emotionally draining day.  HE is the one most in need of retreat, of sleep, of solitude.  I would have recommended the disciples run interference.  In fact, they could have rallied the crowd beforehand and afterward in my book.  They could have saved Jesus’ time and energy considerably, if all he had to do was appear for a measured few hours in the public eye.

But Jesus has done the opposite.

For HE stays behind to dismiss the crowd.

 

Now, this image plays very well into the southern, Christian, stoic woman script I learned through-out my growing years.

As a southern, Christian, stoic woman, you come first and leave last.  You ask what is needed of you from others and not what you need.  You tend to others and not to yourself.  You press emotions and issues tidily into closets, and keep on going.  This describes my grandma to a tee.  Anything less would be selfish, would it not!?

It has only been in the past couple decades that the toxicity of living this script for so long began to reveal itself to me.  I was dying, more and more, to my truest self.  I was co-dependent:  caring for others while expecting them to care for me.  Frustrated but unallowed to be frustrated, the closet doors to my emotions were becoming harder and harder to close and tuck away.

 

Now my wife, on the other hand, was not raised within this American, southern-woman culture.  And she is good at taking care of herself. 

It used to make me really annoyed.

She didn’t play by my internal script.  SHE cared for herself – so she’d be renewed and have more to give.  SHE exercised regularly – taking time for herself.  SHE met up with friends and shared scrumptious meals.

And all of this grated my nerves.

 

Why?

Because I was downright jealous!  I wanted to exercise regularly.  I wanted to meet up with friends and share scrumptious meals.  I wanted to be cared for and to feel renewed.

 

But I had been fed this lie that self-care was selfish. 

I had been fed this lie that loving myself more meant loving others and God less.

I was living in the lie that this world is scarce – that some for me means less for you – and not in the abundance of Christ – that there is enough for both you and me, and that my wellbeing means I have more to give in relationship.

I had a lot to relearn.  I needed to learn her ways!!

 

And so when I read what Jesus does here – staying back alone to dismiss the crowd – I get anxious.  This is where I start to doubt my own self-care because Jesus’s action appears very self-less.

I bring this up to caution those of us who are tempted – like me – to return to those familiar places of guilt and self-neglect.

What we do see however, is that Jesus has more resources for taking care of himself.  It seems he does not need to leave early to head back home by boat, seeing as he can simply walk across stormy seas on his own two feet, at will.  He is not limited by his humanity – by fears and disbelief – he doesn’t sink like Peter; he is living fully within the power and possibility of God.

This plan of sending the disciples away first also affords Jesus the opportunity to be alone, and that is what he does.  He seeks out a solitary place.  He climbs a mountainside and there, he prays.

Jesus has done what he needs.  Jesus is taking care of himself.  EVEN JESUS, needs time alone, in communion with God.

How much moreso do we?
How much moreso do we need time alone?
How much moreso do we need time alone to pray?

 

As compassionate as Jesus is, he does not work through the night, no.   He dismisses the crowd.  He does this personally.  He does this compassionately.  But he does it.  He sends folks away.  He sends them home.

And then he retreats alone to the one place he is truly at home – with his Heavenly Father, with God.

 

This is Jesus taking care of himself. 

This is Jesus taking time for himself.
This is Jesus drinking from the well of living water.
This is Jesus waiting on God, and rising up on wings, as eagles.
This is Jesus setting his boundary.

Though God the Son, Jesus is still in the flesh; therefore, he still needs rest, he still needs solitude, he still needs deliberate times of communion with God.

 

And following this time of renewal,

…he once again seeks out his disciples in their time of great need,
…and once again he shows them a glimpse of the Kingdom of God
– preaching without words, as he walks across the very sea amidst the storm.

 

Jesus preached all the time and only sometimes with words. 

His actions speak the loudest.

And what comes through to me in this story is both his compassion to dismiss the crowds himself, face to face, and his boundaries at setting aside his evening to rest and prayer and renewal.

Some of us find it quite difficult to BOTH have compassion AND set boundaries.
But Love showed us both.
Jesus showed us both.
God shows us both.

 

When we love others while loving ourselves – setting healthy boundaries to take care of our own needs – we most shine God’s own love; we demonstrate God’s love, just as Jesus did on the evening of that very long day.

 

Let us pray.

God reveal to us when we are tempted to think more highly of ourselves than we ought; when we think we can and therefore try to do everything,

as if we ourselves were you,
as if we ourselves didn’t also need to retreat – to be alone, to hike and rest and pray.

God, we truly need you.  Help us to know and to acknowledge our own boundaries and limitations.  And may we honor who you’ve made us to be – limitations and all – by caring for ourselves with tender, gracious wisdom
…just as Jesus did on the evening of that LONG day.

 

In our LONG days, draw us into your presence and speak life into our death.
For we absolutely need you.
Everyday,
We need you. 

 

Amen.

“The Kingdom of God is Like…”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Psalm 105:1-11, 45b
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

 

Psalm 105:1-11, 45b

Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name;
make known among the nations what he has done.
Sing to him, sing praise to him;
tell of all his wonderful acts.
Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
Look to the Lord and his strength;
seek his face always.

Remember the wonders he has done,
his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced,
you his servants, the descendants of Abraham,
his chosen ones, the children of Jacob.
He is the Lord our God;
his judgments are in all the earth.

He remembers his covenant forever,
the promise he made, for a thousand generations,
the covenant he made with Abraham,
the oath he swore to Isaac.
He confirmed it to Jacob as a decree,
to Israel as an everlasting covenant:
“To you I will give the land of Canaan
as the portion you will inherit.”

Praise the Lord.

 

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

“Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

“Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked.

“Yes,” they replied.

He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

These images of the Kingdom of God are telling and worthy of a deeper dive.

First off, what is the Kingdom of God?  I don’t know that any of us can fully explain, after all none of us have seen it in full.  Some have wanted to explain it away as heaven, but our scriptures talk about the Kingdom of God as being here and now, among us.  It is not something we merely wait and hope for.  It is what Christ began and we are called to continue, in this world, here and now, by the Spirit of the Living God.

And so, when we read these parables, Christ is giving us insights into the work we are to be about.  Christ is giving us glimpses into what is not yet but is already AND is still becoming.  We glimpse what is and what is to come.  And so these parables become touchstones to us along this life of discipleship, along our journeys of faith, along our lives of mission and service.

 

The first parable we read compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed a man plants in his field.  Though the smallest of seeds, it says, it yields among the largest of garden plants, becoming a tree, in which the birds of the air build their nest and perch in its branches.

Several things stand out.  First, the Kingdom of God is powerful but modest.  It may appear small.  It may appear wimpy.  It will be underestimated –  the hug, the smile, the kind word, the act of forgiveness, words of compassion and empathy, telling the truth, listening, the small step toward justice – and yet, as it grows, it far exceeds expectation.  Not only that, but it is a blessing to other creatures.  The Kingdom of God grows and grows and grows – it multiplies like the loaves and the fish – and in its shade, creatures find shade and shelter, rest and provision.  THIS is what the Kingdom of God is like!

 

The second parable we read compares the Kingdom of God to yeast a woman mixes into 60lbs of flour, till the yeast pervades the dough.  60 pounds.  Can you imagine?  I did the math:  that’s 12 bags of four.  Some tiny grains of yeast – able to raise 60 pounds of flour?  That’s no small feat.  Again, one would underestimate the yeast.  It is small – especially up against 60lbs of wheat.  They don’t begin to compare, and yet it leavens the whole batch!  THIS is what the Kingdom of God is like!

 

The third parable is different than these first two.  Rather than speaking of how small the Kingdom of God begins and yet how powerful and pervasive it is, this third parable speaks to something else.  It speaks of joy!  It speaks of impact!  It speaks of one’s life, turned upside down,…in blessing!

Here a man finds a treasure in a field.  He is amazed.  What luck!  What blessing!  But it is not his; he does not own the field.  And so he hides it back again, goes home and sells all he has, and returns to buy that field.  Today perhaps we could imagine one doing this, if one found gold or perhaps oil on a track of land.  It is a treasure.  It is provision.  It is more than one could ask or imagine.  And yet there it is.  And so every bit of life needs to be rearranged in order to receive that gift, that blessing.  Everything unnecessary must go.  Everything owned to this point doesn’t even begin to compare.  Nothing will be the same because this man knows that the treasure is worth it all.  He gives up what he has in order to receive the blessing.  He sells all he has that he might acquire it.  He loses his life in order that he might find it.

pearTHIS is what it looks like when one truly finds the Kingdom of God.  It is a treasure of great worth.  Nothing else compares.  Everything else must go to make room for it.

 

And the forth parable is like the third.  This time the man is in active search for a pearl of great worth.  He knows what he wants and won’t stop till he finds it.  And when he does, he lays down everything he has for it.  He sells it all so he can afford the one thing for which he has searched and searched.  And he buys it!  He seeks and he finds, as he seeks with all his heart.  And he would never go back.  THIS is how earnestly sought after the Kingdom of God is.  THIS is how desired, how valuable, how re-orienting the Kingdom of God is on our lives.

 

And so we come to the fifth.  Different still, this parable tells of the end of the age, the end in which the righteous are sorted out from the unrighteous.  The unrighteous meet a fiery end.  And this is jarring, is it not?  This is the kind of story told by many a preacher scaring the Kingdom of God into fearful souls.  But righteousness isn’t remedied by a one time confession or prayer.  Righteousness comes from action.  And our actions just don’t cut it.  But God in mercy has made a way in Christ, that all may be made well, that all may be made whole, that all may be cleaned and covered by the sacrificial love of Christ – taking for us the punishment we deserved and drawing us into the family of God – made righteous not by our own actions but by Christ’s actions on our behalf.  We are made righteous by the saving act Christ.  And our command is simply to receive it, to let that truth seep beneath the surface of things and start that Kingdom of God transformation in us, from the inside out.

Thus, not all will believe.  Not all will receive.  Our God is most loving; we are given the choice to love or to hate, to return or to flee, to receive or reject.  Even God, who alone knows what it truly best for us, allows each of us the freedom of choose, the freedom to love.

Should we not do that for one another also?

THIS is how lovingly and respectfully the Kingdom of God comes to us.  THIS is the responsibility each of us must bear:  to receive or reject, to turn toward or turn away.  Whatever we choose or do not choose, it most critically matters for our very lives.

 

And then Jesus pauses the telling of parables to ask whether or not the disciples understand.  They believe they do, answering, “yes.”

And Jesus concludes saying, “Therefore anyone who has been a teacher of the law and now has become a disciple in the Kingdom of God is like the owner of a house who goes into his storeroom and brings out treasures, both new and old.”

I don’t think I’d ever before noticed this statement by Jesus.  It would appear that Jesus is speaking about teachers of the law – meaning those Jewish religious leaders who were teaching the people the way to go.  He is pointing out that in that line of work and service they receive spiritual blessings, and that in joining now in the Kingdom work of God, their blessings only increase – for a lifetime of treasures, new and old.

 

And so does this not apply to our own lives today?

How about the civil servant, working to do justice, who discovers the grace and love of Christ and joins with God’s Spirit in doing justice by the power of God?

How about the mother who raises her children with love, who comes to know the depth and breadth of God’s love for her and joins with God in nurturing her children in the love of God, calling them to live into the fullness of all God has made them to be?

How about the scientist working on breakthroughs, on cures, who hears God’s call to service, who now joins in the power of God to bring healing to the afflicted, far and wide?

Do they not have treasure wrought, blessings bestowed, both new and old?

 

And is this not Christ’s invitation?

…to seek that pearl of great price, the Kingdom of God?!

…to sell everything one has in order to acquire everything that truly matters, the Kingdom of God?!

…to begin our journeys with God, trusting in the smallest of acts done in obedience to the Spirit of God?

…to plant our tiniest seeds of faith and to watch them grow into rest and provision, shelter and shade for all God’s creatures?

 

Is Jesus not inviting us still?
… into deeper communion?
… to recognize how our lives intersect with God’s purposes?
… to see how God’s heart and life lives within us?
… to greater joy, greater provision, greater meaning, greater harvest than anything we could have done in our own strength, in our own power?

 

The Kingdom of God is what we have yearned for, what we have prayed for.  It is worth far more than anything we could earn or acquire for ourselves.  It is the justice that rolls down like the mighty waters.  It is the mercy that makes way for healing.  It is the equity that frees souls to live into their truest selves, their truest purposes and callings.  It is the kindness and compassion that nurtures our very souls, begetting life where there was once only death.

 

THIS is the Kingdom of God.

 

Christ began it.
The Spirit of God enlivens it.
And WE are called to live it into being, more and more and more.

Thanks be to God!

 

 

 

 

“Sin’s Obscurity and God’s Purposes”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Romans 8:26-39
Genesis 29:15-28

 

Romans 8:26-39

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

Genesis 29:15-28

Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.” So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.

Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.” So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” Laban said, “This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife.


 

The fact is that almost any behavior can be justified using the Bible.  In the Bible, there is rape; there is murder; there is mob mentality; dismemberment; racial discrimination; genetic engineering; magic; divination; genocide; the stealing of land and possession; slavery; concubines; polygamy; royal, live versions of “The Bachelor,” stonings; rebellions; terrorist attacks; deceit; human trafficking; executions; child sacrifice; and even the sanctified killing of babies…

Now you may say, “Yes, but we know those things were wrong; they are only in there to teach us that they are wrong.”  And you may be correct.  But how do we know which is which?

 

In the Bible men are not to have long hair.  Pork is not to be eaten.  Women must have long hair and wear a head covering.  Women must separate themselves from community and isolate during their seven days of menstruation.  Animal sacrifices are to be brought.  Circumcision is a thing.  Animals are not to be cooked in their own milk…

The lists of do’s and don’ts are extraordinarily long.

And why?
Most of us would say we are now exempt from this long list of rules.
Why?
Because in Christ the old is gone and the new has come.
But this also does not mean we simply drop all the stories.  They still have value.
But it places a particular burden on the reader. 

And this burden is that of prayer, study, and discernment.

For without prayer, without the leading of the Spirit of God, our own minds and hearts can rationalize and excuse any plethora of behavior.

The Bible was used in support of slavery.  It was used in support of keeping women silent.  I has been used to justify slaughtering entire nations, burning “witches” at the stake, and it is probably still used my some today to justify polygamy.  After all, even this story of our beloved patriarch Jacob, we hear of how he takes two wives – both Leah and Rachel.  And though he did not ask for this, he nonetheless walked this path.  And this is a path so many of our Fathers in the faith walked.  Abraham had one wife, but he slept with his wife’s slave.  David had many lovers, including one he stole from one of his most loyal and honorable servants.  Solomon had many lovers.  …And these are only the examples we know about.

The responsibility of reading the Bible prayerfully – opening oneself up to God in a listening, in a conversation – is most imperative.

 

And then we must read it intelligently.  It is our responsibility to learn the cultures in which these passages were written.  Context absolutely matters when interpreting scripture.  We need to be able to take a step back from any one particular passage and begin to see the meta-narrative – the overarching themes, direction, point of it all.  We need to read enough of scripture that we can allow them to inform one another, to converse, to challenge, to be in tension.  Just like we are strengthened by those with whom we disagree, scripture is best heard in tension with other contrasting scriptures.  This is part of how we tease out and understand the deeper meaning.  For example, Paul says, “Women keep silent.”  But then he praises Eunice, who was a church leader.  Paul says, “Slaves remain as you are.”  But then he says, “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, man or woman, slave or free.”

When heard together, these passages can be quite bewildering, but it can also lead us to dive deeper, to ask the questions.  And in the asking, in the seeking, God says we will find.

 

In my own seeking on these questions, I came to believe that Paul was both pastor and prophet.  He would, at once, see the end vision AND nurture the people on a path to get there.  The path and the end vision are not the same.  One is stark, the other gradual.  But in the end, both aim in the same direction.  Paul also believed Jesus would return within his lifetime, and so he encourages people to set down their own needs and to instead focus on God, compromise, lay down their own lives for the sake of others.  And while these instructions stand well on their own over the test of time, they also help us understand why Paul did not try navigating faster toward the final vision of equality, the final vision of family unity, the final vision of freedom.  He felt the time was short.  So he cut to the chase; “better to loose ones life and save ones soul.”

 We are called to read the scriptures with discernment.  Discernment is a coming together of everything:  prayer, listening, studying, comparing…

 

In our Old Testament scripture passage today, we witness deceit; polygamy; the possession, trading, and bargaining of men over women’s lives; and the possession and trading of enslaved persons.

Would you have wanted to be deceived as was Jacob?

Would you have wanted to be secretly switched out with your sister for a bridal night with her betrothed?  Unwanted, yet forced into the middle?

Would you have wanted to have your betrothed, given secretly to sleep with your sister, on your own wedding night?

Would you want to be the property of anyone, much less such a deceitful man, and then all of sudden given as property to his daughter?

 

None of this is good.

None of this is fair.

None of this is right.

 

And yet, God still speaks to us through it.

God meets us in the mess of the world – the messes we’ve made and those that have befallen us – and is present…in healing, in restoration, in mercy, in justice, in growth, in redemption.

And are we ready for the whole shebang at once?!?

Though I have long yearned and cried and prayed for God to make all things right.  If God did, then I too would be wiped out, for I too participate in societal sins – many of which I am not even aware of.

Will my children and my children’s children look back on me and condemn my depletion of this world’s fossil fuels, the littering of our oceans, the cutting down of our forests, the wiping out of entire species?…

Will my children or my children’s children look back on me and condemn how long it took me to realize that I am gay?  The fact that my lack of self-awareness took a toll on my former husband?  The fact that it took me so long to speak God’s words to me, those words spoken into my theoretical questions from Seminary 20 years ago about whether or not it was right to be gay.  Those words God spoke into my heart saying, “I have made people this way.  And it is pleasing in my sight.”  Will they look on my silence on the matter for so long …with indictment?

Will my children’s children be able to tolerate the abuse I bore?  Will they have compassion on the slowness of my own empowerment?  Will they shake their heads at how I silenced myself, made excuses for my abuser, put my own needs last, discredited my own emotions, failed to listen to my own heart and soul,…for so very long?

Will my children or my children’s children look back at the trash I created, at the possessions I owned, at the chemicals I used on this earth?

Will they look back on the segregation I tolerated, the privileges I received?

Will they look back on my ignorance to my own state and sins?

Will they look back and be able to see in hindsight all my flaws?

 

They probably will.

 

God is walking us all toward a more just and whole world.  Our rates of growth vary.  Some of us walk.  Some of us run.  And some of us lie down and refuse to move.

God loves us and all of creation.  And this love comes through in our continued awakenings, openness, growth, and change.  This love comes through in discipline, in turning us around, sometimes gently and sometimes most abruptly.  God gives us vision of the end AND paths to get there.  God has compassion on us, in our becoming.  God loves us, just as we are.  AND God is calling us to lay down the sins and weights that cling so closely and to run this race set before us – with intelligence, energy, and love that covers all things!

 

Thanks be to God for working all things together for the good of all those who love God and are called to be part of God’s purposes in the world.

Thanks be to God for not giving up on us – for correcting us as a parent who loves her child and running like the father of the prodigal son, welcoming his wayward son back home with great joy and gladness.

Thanks be.

 

May we fulfill the purposes God is working in our lives.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~

 PRAYERS 

                                                                                     Psalm 126
O Lord God,
May those who sow with tears
Reap with joy.

Thomas a Kempis (Germany, 1380-1471)
Make that possible to us, O Lord, by grace, which appears impossible to us by nature.

Martin Luther (Germany, 1483-1546)
O God, we believe this life is not a state of being righteous, but rather, of growth in righteousness; not a state of being healthy, but a period of healing; not a state of being, but becoming, not a state of rest, but of exercise and activity.  We are not yet what we shall be, but we grow towards it; the process is not yet finished, but is still going on; this life is not the end, it is the way to a better.  All does not yet shine with glory; nevertheless, all is being purified.

9th century Latin Hymn
O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by Thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight

Emmanuel, you have come to us.  You dwell among us.  You make all things new.
Come, O come, Emmanuel!
And hear our prayers…

 

“The Growing Edge”

The Growing Edge
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

 

Romans 8:1-11

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

 

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”


 

I have mixed feelings about this parable of the sower.  In some ways it feels anticlimactic for me, because Jesus just comes right out & interprets the parable in a specific way.  In other words, there is not much left to discern or discover.  It is unique, because usually we do not hear Jesus explain.  Usually the hearer is left to dive deeper and wrestle with God in her heart.

But I find several observations interesting.

Though I could tell this parable in my sleep,…

Though my brain starts to check out when I hear these familiar words,…

Life’s experiences have made this story more interested because I can think back on people in my life who have lived lives, as different as the soils in this story.

 

For Jesus interprets the soil as each of us:  our lives and our habits, our ways and our values, our focus and our priorities.  And I have met folks who have been the path, the rocky soil, the thorny ground, and the good soil.   I’ve met folks who are an easy mark, like the path where the birds come and quickly snatch up the seed before it takes root.  Jesus says these folks do not understand the Word of God.  Perhaps they are quickly deceived by shallow and reductive thinking.  Perhaps they favor certainty over mystery, the illusion of control over surrender.  Perhaps they think in black and white, perhaps they never do the work of self-reflection and improvement.

I have met folks who are like the soil around the rocks and boulders.  When they hear the Word of God, they receive it with joy, but they have not done the work.  They have not wrestled with the text.  They have not faced their own demons, questions, and doubts.  Perhaps they have fallen for the  trending lie that life with God is one of bliss and abundance.  Perhaps they’ve come to believe that bad things do not happen to good people… But whatever it is, when the sun beats down and the wind doesn’t blow and rains don’t come, they wither up and die.  Their faith – quick to spring up is also quick to wilt, swift to fade.

And then there are those whose lives mirror the soil of thorny ground.  The Word of God planted in their hearts must compete with all sorts of temptations.  Perhaps it is wealth, or the desire for it.  Perhaps it is power, or the desire for it.  Perhaps their lives are being consumed by the insignificant.  Perhaps they are distracted beyond recognition, and never water the soil of their lives and hearts.  Many simply go and go and go and go…never stopping, never resting, never listening, and definitely not following.

Finally there is the good soil – those who hear the Word of God.  The Word takes root in their hearts and lives.  It grows in depth and breadth.  And as it matures, it begins to produce fruit.

 

 

I have been nurturing my very own, first vegetable garden.  And for the first month, it felt like the growth was minuscule.  I wondered why friends on facebook were already showing pictures of large leaves and vines.  I wondered what was wrong with my patch.  But then, when I wasn’t looking it seemed, suddenly there were leaves and there were vines.  They filled the patch, and they began to overtake it, moving outward and into the yard.

But still there was no fruit.  I checked under vine and leaf, day after day, but I couldn’t find any.  Again I was watching friends post pictures of squash and zucchini, peppers and cucumbers.  So was I missing it?  Was it hiding?  Would it bear anything more than leaves?

And then, again, when I wasn’t looking, the fruit began to grow.  Before I knew it, I discovered a small cucumber and then a small squash.  And now, just a week or two later, we’ve eaten one of the largest squashes I’ve ever seen – grown from our yard!

And in such ways, the Word of God grows in our hearts, minds, and lives.  With nurture and intention, we watch the vines grow, and when we aren’t even looking, something clicks.  A conversation, a connection, an opportunity, a choice – we suddenly notice we’re not the same anymore.  We realize that the very thing that used to snow us under didn’t even ruffle our feathers this time.  In the familiar territory of anxiety and fear, we remember God’s Word and place our trust in the Lord.  We discover a peace, before the storm has even passed.  In a conversation, we hear ourselves treating another with compassion and respect, and suddenly it occurs to us that we ought to also treat ourselves with that same compassion, that same respect.  We finally set down our yearnings for control and see what God will do with our surrender, what serendipity may surprise us, what provision will come where they was nothing before…

Or perhaps we let go of our striving toward perfection.  Perhaps we set down our expectations.  Perhaps we surrender our fears and anxieties, and we take one step back, to observe them, to look upon ourselves with the compassion in which God has looked upon us – as we are made of dust!

Perhaps we let the Word unsettle us.  Instead of shoving down our questions and doubts, maybe we give them voice.  Maybe we dig a little deeper.  Maybe we open ourselves in vulnerability to someone else and find that together we are made stronger.

Our roots have begun to grow.
In seasons of drought, we have dug deeper.

And then
our yield, our fruit, our harvest begins.

 

And THIS is God’s purpose for us.  To BE BLESSED and to BE A BLESSING.  We ourselves are to be food for the hungry, shade for the weary, nector for the thirsty.  Following the lead of Christ, who gave himself that we might live, we too answer God’s call to live for God and not ourselves alone.  We answer God’s call to join in something bigger and broader, fresher yet more ancient, than our life alone. 

 

And we cannot make this happen.  We cannot will it to happen.

It is GOD who plants the seed.  God is the Sower.  God is the actor.

 

WE have received.

WE have received.

We have all been blessed.

OUR CALLING is to receive. 

To Receive.

 

We are always responding to God.

We are making choices that determine the state of our lives, the state of our soul, the state of our soil.

 

So
what kind of soil are you?  What is your temptation?

What
is your growing edge?

 


 

 

PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE                  (Book of Common Worship, adapted & expanded)

O God, you are our life and breath, our light and fire our teacher and healer.  We praise you for your handiwork of shaping creation.  We commit ourselves to serve you for the sake of the Gospel.  We devote ourselves to prayer with and for your people.  We offer ourselves with vulnerability and look to you alone for strength.  Be our rest.  Be our rock.  Be our Lord.

God of compassion, keep vigil with us these days.  We grieve for the dead and pray for the afflicted.  We watch and wait with those who writhe in love and helplessness, as they cannot hold the hand of the one they love or say their goodbyes.  We remember those who serve others – rescue workers and police officers, nurses and physicians, civic and community leaders, and volunteers of every kind.  Fill them with your breath of life as they bind up the brokenhearted, heal bodies, and bury the dead.  Flow through them in the power of your Spirit, as they make snap decisions, as they enter charged situations, as they pray and work toward a more just and equitable world.  Enfold us all in your tender care.  We lay ourselves at your feet.

You give us prophets, holy God, to cry out for justice and mercy.  Open our ears to hear them, and to follow the truth they speak, lest we support injustice and seek to secure our own well-being at the expense of our brothers and sisters.  Give prophets the fire of your Word, but give them love as well.  Sow in us the awareness that there is far more that unites us than separates us.  Remind us all of our ever-present need for your steadfast love and mercy.  We all stand bare before you.

“How Long, O Lord?”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Amos 5:18-24
Psalm 13

 

Amos 5:18-24

Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light;
as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.
Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

 

Psalm 13

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”;
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.


 

This Psalm is like a breath of fresh air because it speaks the angst and anger in our souls.  It speaks to the pain and sorrows we bear.  It speaks to our lament and loss.

I have wanted to relate to this Psalm much less than I do.

But in fact, this Psalm has more often than not felt right in line with the prayers and cries of my heart.  So many times I’ve needed to cry out honestly to God, “How long, O Lord!?  How long?”

But the turning point in this Psalm comes when the Psalmist writes, “But I trusted in your steadfast love.  My heart shall rejoice in your salvation.”  Even while he is in the midst of pain and sorrow…  Even while he feels God’s face has turned away from him…  Even before God answers his cries…  The Psalmist returns to truth and praise.

 

I cannot tell you how many times this re-framing of life has in fact saved my life.  I don’t know about you, but there are caverns of my mind and heart in which I can lose myself.  As a minister, I choose to walk alongside others, in deepest valleys and highest mountaintops.  As an empathetic person, I feel the pain and suffering of those around me.  And in times like these, when the whole world is lamenting the needless and tragic loss of unarmed black men and women in particular, I feel the heaviness of hearts around me.

And I believe we are called to walk with one another in these heights and depths.  As Presbyterians in particular, we affirm the “priesthood of all believers.”  This means that we believe each one of us has a calling to minister to one another.  And though each of us does it in a different way, we are all filled with God’s Spirit, and we are all given this heavenly calling of ministering, one to another.

 

But as we walk alongside one another, as we journey through the heights and the depths, we need to remain grounded in God’s word, in God’s truth.

For me, this has meant an intentional returning to scripture, an intentional remembering of scripture, an intentional choice to believe God’s word over my own feelings, over my own fears, over my own despair or anxieties.  God’s word has been grounding.

 

And so when I am tempted to think God has forsaken me, I remember Psalm 139 – in which the Psalmist proclaims that there is no where he can go, where God will not be!

And when I am tempted to believe that God does not regard me, I remember Jesus’ teaching of the lilies of the valley and the birds of the air – how they do not reap or sow but how God clothes and feeds them, and how we are of more worth to God than many sparrows.  I remember God’s words through Psalm 63, “For you are precious in my sight, and I love you.”

When I am tempted to despair that the future will be brighter than the past, I recall Jeremiah 29:11 – ‘”For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you a future of hope.”’

 

Story after story in the Bible, Psalm after Psalm, God’s Word through prophet and all creation continues to speak into my life and the lives of those around me – grounding and re-framing our experiences.  And at this particular moment of our national history, I am moved by the verses we read from Amos.  In Amos, God is rebuking the people for their evil ways.  God goes so far as to say God despises their festivals, will not accept their sacrifices, and will not listen to their songs.

Now you would think God was talking to a pagan people or something – people who were singing falsehood or worshiping an idol, but in fact God is speaking to God’s own chosen people.  Their sacrifices, their solemn assemblies, their praise are all worthless,… without justice.

Read Amos 5:18-24 again.
Can you hear God speaking to us here and now, through this Old Testament prophet?

We as a church body ask that God’s will may be done.  We pray that God’s Kingdom will come.  We sing aloud.  We offer tithes and offerings.  We celebrate special holy days and seasons.  But none of this is pleasing to God and God will in fact no accept these offerings and songs, UNLESS they are accompanied with justice.

And this is not a token act of justice.  God says, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

 

Our worship, our words, our proclamations, our giving,…none of it amounts to anything, without justice.  For our actions matter more.  How we treat one another matters more.  And justice is not a one-time event.  We are to let justice roll down like waters.  Waters that roll down are unstoppable.  They cannot be contained.  We are to let righteousness be an ever flowing stream -ever flowing!  These waters of righteousness and goodness, justice and truth, are to flow like waters, on and on and on!  THAT is what is pleasing to God.  THAT is an offering God accepts.  THAT is true worship – worship with our lives, worship with our actions, worship with our policies, our politics, our votes, our civic responsibility.

 

So as we come before God this day…
As we stand before one another this day…
As we cry out to God, “How long, O Lord!?”…
As we walk alongside those for whom tears have been their food night and day…

 

May WE do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

May WE labor and love that justice might roll down like the waters.

May WE invite God into the sacred and the secular, the personal and the political, because the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it; there is no place where we can go that God will not be.  And our God calls us to be people of justice. 

 

So BEFORE we see the fruit of our love and labors…
BEFORE we see righteousness cover our communities…
BEFORE justice rolls down like the waters…
BEFORE we see God’s deliverance…

We will remember God’s steadfast love.  We give God our thanks and praise, for our God has dealt bountifully with us.  We rejoice in God’s deliverance.  For though we do not yet see that for which we hope and cry out, we trust that our God is faithful, our God is able, our God is just, and our God is loving.  And so we hang our heads in the hands of the One who loves us better than we can even love ourselves.

 

“Holy Spirit, move within us, stir us and send us like the wind, that we might will and work for your good pleasure – that justice may indeed cover the earth, rolling down like the mighty waters.  Amen.”

 

PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE                    (St. Francis)

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.