“Transformed and Ever Transforming”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Acts 9:1-20
Isaiah 58:1-12

Acts 9:1-20

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”

Isaiah 58:1-12 

Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.

If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

This scripture passage always stops me in my tracks.  Every time I read it, I hear God’s righteous anger.  I hear God’s impatience with outward displays of repentance.  God is telling it like it is. No fluff.

The people say one thing, yet do another.

They seek God and delight to know God’s ways, AS IF they were a people who practiced righteousness.

The people have the outward appearance of religion while their hearts and motives and behaviors are far from God’s ways

They fast.  They put on sackcloth and ashes. They mourn and make displays of repentance, but they do it for their own motives.  Their actions don’t really change.  Instead of turning away from sin, they sin all the more, continuing to oppress and exploit one another, to fight and bicker, to blame and point fingers, to turn away from the hungry and oppressed…

God SEES RIGHT THROUGH these pious religious acts.

Perhaps to the world and even among their peers, these folks appear very good.  They do the right things.  They follow the rituals.  They know what to say.  They show up. They seek after God.

But their hearts and their lives betray them before God.

And God wants no part of it!

The whole point of everything, the whole point of seeking God, the whole point of fasting, the whole point of praying, the whole point of sackcloth and ashes…it is all to bring us to true repentance and discipleship. The point of all this seeking God is that we might EXPERIENCE GOD and be transformed.

We are to leave DIFFERENT than when we came.

If you and I are coming to church and worship, week after week, and leaving the same.  Then we are missing the point all together.

To stand in the presence of the Almighty, is to be changed.

And we are here to seek the presence of the Almighty God.

If we are leaving the same, then we have to ask ourselves why we are coming.  What are we doing.  Whose interests are we serving?  What are our reasons?  Do we have an agenda?

We gather as the church to seek God’s face and learn God’s ways.
So how are we putting into practice God’s ways?
Where is all this seeking God getting us?

John Newton composed the beloved hymn Amazing Grace.

He was not one you’d think of as a hymn writer or a lover of God.

In fact his early years were full of angst and pain.  His puritan mother died just before his 7th birthday.  His father was a stern sea captain who began taking him out to see at age 11.  His continued drunkenness and recklessness led to his being impressed into the British Navy.  But he didn’t last there long, but was caught trying to desert, given 8 dozen lashes and demoted to common seaman.  During one voyage on a slave trading ship, the ship was damaged badly and would have sunk, but Newton prayed to God and miraculously some cargo shifted on the ship, plugging the hole in the hull and allowing the ship to drift to safety. This moment is renowned as marking his conversion to Christianity.  His real transformation was slower in coming, however, as he later wrote: “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards.”  But this moment did mark the beginning of his reading the Bible.  And in doing so, he began to look on his captives with greater sympathy.

Still, he continued in the slave trade business, making 3 more voyages, until he had a stroke and retired.  Even still, he continued to invest in the trade of human beings…

Ten years later, he became an Anglican priest.  He began composing hymns to accompany the services, some 280 in all.  Eighteen years after his retirement from the slave trade business, he wrote the hymn Amazing Grace.  It would be sixteen more years, however, before he publicly renounced the slave trade in a blazing pamphlet called “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade.”  In the tract he described the abhorrent conditions of the travel and he apologizes for how long it took him to publicly renounce the practice.  He wrote:  “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”

Despite Newton’s long journey to repentance, this final step of publicly denouncing the trade of human beings made an impact.  The tract became very popular and was printed and reprinted.  And in 1807, the English civil government outlawed slavery in Great Britain.  Newton lived, just long enough to see it.

Newton is not a fine example of someone who followed after God quickly.  It took him almost his whole lifetime to begin to “right” some of the grave wrongs and injustices committed in his life.

And yet he did follow.

Despite the time it took, despite the seeming gross inadequacy of the good he tried to accomplish in his later years, he turned…away from sin and toward righteousness.

And so many other figures we meet in the Bible are flawed.  The famed prodigal son of Jesus’ parable does not turn around until he hits utter rock bottom, not until he’s squandered half the family’s wealth and assets, at the expense of his father and brother…

And yet he turns.

Even Paul, who authored so many of our beloved New Testament books only turned to God after actively and fervently persecuting the followers of Christ.  He used the hold the coats of those who stoned Christians.  He traveled far and wide hunting them.  But God had other plans, stops him in his tracks, and begins to teach him through the risen Christ and through those very Christians he had only days before been seeking out in order to kill.  Paul, then known as Saul, turns, away from evil and toward God, and God gives him a new name.

If you’d have asked him before whether or not he was following God, I am sure he would have given us a resounded, “Yes!”  After all, he was top among his peers and colleagues in serving God, as he understood God to be.  But it wasn’t until he met the risen Christ on that Damascus road that his understanding of God expanded and he was able to glimpse the Living God.  Like the scales that fell from his eyes, the idols of God which he’d fervently followed fell away before the One true God who shattered all his boxes and limits and narrow ideas about God.

Reading the Bible, coming to church, seeking God’s face, worshipping together… all of this is meant to facilitate encounters between us and the Living God.  Though our encounters may be less dramatic than Paul’s on that Damascus road or John Newton’s in the belly of that ship for human trafficking, these encounters are real.  And they are meant to shake us out of our complicity in sin and evil – even the kind of complicity we once thought was good.

We cannot encounter the Living God and leave unchanged.
Our lives are not our own.
They have been redeemed at great cost.
We have been saved and called for PURPOSE.

And not our own purposes. We are called to step into the flow of God’s Spirit and to join our Creator, Redeemer, and Friend in carrying out God’s purposes.

Like Jonah, called to tell a sinful people the error of their ways, we may be called to reach out to folks we do not like and might rather see smote by the hand of God than given another chance.

Like Moses, we may be called to lead a stubborn and rebellious people, out of bondage and into freedom and that wholeness that comes from righteous living.

Like Joshua, we may be called to fight battles, where the odds are stacked against us, where the people are literally twice our size…

Like Joseph, we may be called to save a generation, ensuring there is food enough for all.

Like Rahab, we may be called to harbor spys and change course of history…

Like Paul, we may be called to persist, at great odds, in sharing the good news and nurturing the faith of new believers…

We cannot reduce God’s commands to prescriptive acts.  There is not a magic number of good deeds we can do to be righteous before God.  So what are our motives?  What are our motives for giving?  What are our motives for coming to worship?  Why are we here?

If we give, may it be because God is calling us to trust God more with our finances and to empower others to be about the work of God in our time.

If we worship, may it be an opening of ourselves to the living God among us now.

May we find ourselves changed, week after week, in the presence of the Almighty God.

If we love, may it be because God has first loved us.

If we comfort others, may it be with the comfort God has shown us.

If we serve and give of ourselves, may it be because our God has given so much to us, and we will be found honoring and serving God with our gifts and talents.

This season of Lent is an invitation to truly humble ourselves before God.  It is a season of opening ourselves to God’s presence, as we meditate on the life and death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  It is an invitation to open ourselves to encounter the Living God.

With the Psalmist, may we too pray:

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

And may we be found faithful – not perfect, not always right – but a disciple,
one who spends time in the presence of the Lord,
learning God’s ways,
continually correcting our course,
continually growing and changing our ways,
that more and more and more,
whether early or late,
we may be found to be following after Christ,
not merely learning about God’s ways
not merely stepping away from our sinful ways
but stepping into the active and powerful working of God in our world right now,
speaking what God leads us to speak
working as God leads us to work,
and walking in God’s ways. 

May it be so.

“Repentance, Making Way”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Mark 1:1-5
John 8:1-11

Mark 1:1-5

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

John 8:1-11

While Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

Let’s talk about repentance. Doesn’t that sound nice?! 😊

What do you think of when you hear the word repentance?  Do you think of our prayers of confession?  Do you think of closed booths in which folks make their confessions before a priest?

Repentance seems to serve a function.  The Bible speaks of it many times.

Most famously in the Bible we hear this call to repentance from John the Baptist.

So I wonder why was it so important for folks to repent before Jesus made his way on the scene?

I suspect many view repentance as a way to feel better when they’ve done wrong.  And it is true.  Saying we are sorry is a vital step toward healing and reconciliation.

But what we’ve come to know over the years is that there are several more necessary steps for true healing and reconciliation, and saying we are sorry is only step one.

Next comes that notion of making things right.

Now I think this idea that we can make something right is a misnomer.  In fact, there are so many things that we ourselves can never make right.

I was at Shiplock Park down in Shockoe Bottom several weekends ago.  This park has trails all along the canal and river, and it showcases the canal elevator system that was key to Richmond’s economy in the 19th century.  Raw and finished goods were transported by river boat via the canal system, and making it over Richmond’s rocky falls area of the river created an engineering challenge – which was met by this complex system of locks and dams that when used in succession bypassed 7 miles of rocky fall area on the Richmond portion of the river and could raise and lower a boat several stories.

For those of you who have been to Brown’s Island, you may have seen the monument of a man on a boat. This monument recognizes the headmen – the men who navigated the canals – keeping Richmond’s economy vibrant and growing.  Most of these headmen were freed black men, and some were indentured servants from Ireland and England.  The statue on Brown’s Island was a small but significant way of seeking to honor the African American contribution to this city.

Does it make up for the injustices suffered.  Does it right wrongs?

I would say no.

But is it important.  I would say yes.

Another statue on the canal walk is much smaller, it is a replica of a old wooden crate, used for shipping.  It stands in Shockoe Bottom to commemorate one man’s bold journey to freedom.  When his wife, pregnant with their 4th child and 3 children were sold to a plantation farmer in NC, Henry Brown was overcome with grief.  He could only stand and watch helplessly as 350 chained men, women, and children walked by him, his wife, unborn child, and three young children included.

Propelled by grief and the fierce yearning for freedom, Brown reports he felt God’s help in imagining a creative way to escape.  He reached out to members of the underground railway.  He fashioned a box 2×3 foot in size and mailed himself to the north, to freedom.  It was a 3 day journey.  He had only one bladder of water a 3 biscuits.  Several times, the box was thrown & left upside down.  In agonizing pain, he thought he would die, but God brought him alive to freedom.  A life-size replica of this box, with the outline of a man inside, stands by the canal, the place where so many black men worked as headmen, where many enslaved men of color worked the mills and factories, and where many like his wife and children were sold and traded, shipped and received by other men claiming to own them.

Does this small monument make things right?

Absolutely not!

Does it heal the deep wounds of our city’s history?

It does not.

But it is one small voice.  It is onestory among the many never given voice, and it is an important start.

So if repentance does not heal all wounds, what is the point?

How does it lead us on toward life and wholeness and healing?

Well, as we touched on last Sunday, repentance is not merely a saying that one is sorry.  Biblical repentance means to turn completely around and move toward what is right and good and true.

This simple word, diminished in our English translations and in our execution of repentance over the years in the church, is packed with all that is needed.  And it was in fact Jesus who said it with such profound love and eloquence when he spoke to the woman accused of adultery saying, “Go and sin no more.”  Jesus’ response to this woman was not condemnation.  He told her accusers they could begin the prescribed stoning with the one among them who had not sinned, throwing the first stone.  Eventually all her accusers leave.  Not one stone is thrown.  The only one present and sinless is Jesus himself, and he does not condemn her. Rather, he says, “Go, and sin no more.”

True repentance begins when we humble ourselves before God.

It is that classic and necessary returning to an awareness that God is God and we are not.

It is an opening of ourselves to the Spirit of God.

It is an asking that God make plain to us what is out of joint, what is wrong, what is not right.

And then, with all that God has revealed to us, we respond.  We apologize. We express our regret.  We say we are sorry.

But it doesn’t stop there.

From there, we make efforts torightthe wrong.

Though knowing, we ourselves can never undo the damages and havoc we have wreaked in our sins, both collective and individual, we turn.  We turn away from sin and toward righteousness.  We turn away from evil and toward what is good.

It is not enough to name and say the bad, to name and confess our sin.

What is needful is that we return to doing good.

Go, and sin no more…Jesus says.

You see when we get rid of something bad, be it as simple as a bad habit or as complex as a society’s enslavement of other human beings, we need to REPLACE the sin and evil with GOOD and right living.  Otherwise, other bad things will often spring up to quickly take it’s place.  When we give up smoking, we may find ourselves running to sugar.  When we gave up slavery, we found ourselves running to segregation.  And on and on it goes…one sin replacing another sin…  This is not entirely useless.  Sometimes the choice seems to be between one evil and another, with our task being to determine the lessor of two evils…  But until we replace sin with righteous living, we cannot begin the slow but vital work of healing.

Sin is only eradicated with right living.
Bad things are overcome by good things.
Darkness is only overcome by light.

And so repentance is much more than “I’m sorry.”
It is an opening of ourselves to God.
It is an allowing of GOD to reveal to us what is not right
…much of which we could never identify or sense on our own, with our very culture and habits all protecting and reinforcing some of our sins…

And then it is a turning.  A turning toward wholeness and healing, a turning toward right living, a turning back to God and God’s ways.

Now in this did we ever say that repentance makes us right before God?
No.
It does not.  It alone cannot.  We cannot earn righteousness.

Did we say that repentance makes all the evil go away & everything right with the world?

No.

Repentance is vital and necessary to wholeness and life, but it is only a tool that readies us for wholeness and life.  On our own we cannot achieve that wholeness and fullness of life we are made for.

But what God knows about us is that we need repentance, in order to receive the fullness of life Christ lived and suffered and died to give us.

The people needed John the Baptist to make the way ready for Christ by calling the people to repentance. This call opens us.  When we remove what is wrong, we make a space – and that space is only best filled by our Lord.

Because while it is fine and dandy to say we must replace sin with right living, the painful reality is that we will still sin again.

Does it mean we should not try?

No.

Does it mean our repentance before wasn’t sincere or good or earnest?

Not necessarily.

What is does mean is that we come face to face with our utter need for God.

We cannot make it on our own. We can no more make what is right wrong than we can stop making new mistakes and engaging in new sins…

Without God’s totally irrational love for us…
Without God’s incredibly undeserved mercy…
Without the free gift of God’s grace and steadfast love, we are stuck in patterns of sin and death that we cannot escape from or make right on our own.

And so John the Baptist was helping folks humble themselves before God

Empty themselves of sin and all that steals away life and wholeness

And open themselves to the One who could and would and will make all things well.

In this Lenten season, as we prepare our hearts for Christ’s ultimate sacrifice and final victory over sin and death, may we humble and open ourselves before God in prayer.  May we find ourselves repenting of all that would kill steal and destroy, and may we turn back,

…back to the One who can make all things well,

Who does make all things well,
Who is making all things well,
Who will make all things well.

Thanks be to God!

“Carry the Torch”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Mark 1:9-15
Isaiah 43:10a, 15-21

Mark 1:9-15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Isaiah 43:10a,15-21

You are my witnesses, says the Lord,
and my servant whom I have chosen,
so that you may know and believe me
and understand that I am he…
I am the Lord, your Holy One,
the Creator of Israel, your King.
Thus says the Lord,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.

When I was in seminary learning about the Bible, some read this passage with God’s voice speaking to Jesus from the clouds, as Jesus’ coming of age, so to speak.  They argued that for Jesus to be fully human, Jesus was not all-knowing, as in his divine form, so he had to grow into the knowledge of his calling as a human being.

I did not like this interpretation when I heard it.  It seemed to fly in the face of everything I thought I knew about God.  How could Jesus not know he was God?  How could Jesus have to grow into awareness of his calling – as if Jesus was growing & discovering himself, just as you and I do?  If Jesus is also divine, then by definition Jesus knows all!  And yet by this same logic, as a human, Jesus subjected himself to a human body – complete with brain development and coming-of-age awareness. The fact is that Jesus being both God and human is the very definition of oxymoron.  And in fact when you compare Gospel accounts in the Bible, there are those authors who focus on the divinity of Jesus and those who focus more on Jesus’ humanity.

When you compare the Gospel accounts, Mark and Luke both tell the story with God speaking directly to Jesus, before all those witnesses.  Matthew, on the other hand, tells the story the way I’d always imagined it, with God’s voice proclaiming to all around that Jesus was God’s Son, the Beloved, in whom God is well-pleased.”

This may be disturbing. Have you noticed that different Biblical authors tell many stories sometimes very differently?  Have you noticed contradictions?  Have you ever wanted to yell out – “Hey, you guys!  Get it together.  Did Jesus say or do this or did he not?!”

The Bible is not spoken from one point of view.  It is not written by one author.  It is a collection of witnesses to God’s presence and work in the world.  And like any collection of viewpoints, we find a hearty variety of views and stories within it.

Does this mean that some of the Biblical authors are lying?  Does it mean that some are right and some are wrong; that some are accurate and some are mistaken?  Does it mean that some were telling the truth while others were following their own agenda?

All these speculations are reasonable.  All of them are rational.  These are the questions we ask of witnesses in courts, when stories are not lining up, when one witness does not corroborate the next witness.

And yet, could it be possible we sometimes come to the Bible in all the wrong ways?

Today, we judge truth from falsehood based on facts.  We require evidence, concrete, objective, empirical evidence.  And this is often the mindset we bring to the Bible.  This mindset however is new.  I imagine it changed when we started being able to record data:  when spoken word could be recorded, when stories long told and passed down from generation to generation began to be written down.  We’ve started to see the world through the lenses of fact since the creation of the video recorder.  We can now look back and SEE what actually took place (or so we think – but some police videos have called this assumption into question).  We’ve started to see the world through the lenses of science, more and more, especially taking off with one Albert Einstein.

There was no video camera at the dawn of time.  The beginning has been scientifically theorized by many emerging scientists, many with compelling rationale.

How do we know that God created the earth in 7 days?
Is it true?  Is it factual?
Is it possible for something to be true without being factual?

In Jewish rabbinic tradition, faith stories were passed down from generation to generation.  As stories do, they likely changed, as the storytellers themselves aged, as they told it to new audiences and in new situations. The stories evolved from story-teller to story-teller – each person hearing and thus telling the story in a slightly different way, with a differing take.

There was no way to look back at the recording of God creating the universe.  There was no written record of the event.  What we have instead is an oral history.  And its purpose was not to give facts.

And in fact, facts in and of themselves have limited significance.  You can tell a couple the facts of their bodies as they fall in love, but facts are like fluorescent lighting in a bedroom; they shed light on some realities while obscuring others.

Why do we fall in love?
How do we fall in love?
Can facts alone describe the beauty and mystery of compassion and friendship,
forgiveness and new beginnings,
passion and romance?

Facts can deepen our appreciation of the complexity of life, but they also have an end, beyond which we can neither see nor comprehend.
Beyond the known universe of our understanding lies mystery.

Truth stories draw our attention to realities beyond the grasp of the human mind and understanding. Truth stories help us make sense of our world and all that is in it.

And so, going back to our example of the creation story, what we find is a truth story, passed down from generation to generation, telling us that God is God and we are not.  It tells us that God is Creator of all that is. It tells us that we are made to be in relationship with God and to live in harmony with all of creation.  It points to our own ambition and lack of trust as getting in the way of that sweet relationship with God and this world and of all the pain and suffering that spiral out of our breach of that divinely willed wholeness and completeness.

And as is the magic of all stories, these truth stories are accessible from a wide range of vantagepoints. What a gift!  To one recently engaged the story jumps out in one way. To one experiencing the loss of a loved one, the stories jump out in another way.  In seasons of pain, we hear stories in one way.  In seasons of abundant joy, we hear stories another way. And so God meets us right where we are in story, speaking into our lives with relevance and truth.

Truth stories.

And so as we look at this telling of Jesus’ baptism, we can also hear truth– not 20thcentury truth, as measured by facts and evidence, but truth as in the meaning and significance of an event.

Matthew points us to the truth that Jesus is God’s Son, divine, and that the people all around Jesus need to know this.  Luke and Mark point us to the truth that Jesus was a human being, and that Jesus may have needed to hear God’s direct word to him, in what appears to be a coming-of-age, coming into awareness moment for Jesus.  For Jesus is then driven out into the wilderness, where he goes through 40 days and 40 nights (not necessarily 40 – but 40 as the Jewish culture number symbolizing – A LONG TIME) and is tempted by Satan and waited on by the angels.  Was there anyone there recording the events?  No.  But from this long time in which Jesus endured a great deal of temptation in desert, barren, wild place – both physically and spiritually I imagine – Jesus emerges changed.  This story tells us that Jesus went through something, that Jesus was faced with temptation, but that God was with him.

Prior to this transformative moment, we’ve heard only one story of Jesus – of his lingering in the Jerusalem temple, sending his parents into panic-mode.

After this moment, we encounter a Jesus who has purpose, and voice.  Jesus proclaims the fulfillment of time and the imminence of God’s Kingdom. Jesus calls disciples.  Jesus changes water to wine, heals the sick and lame, and even raises people from the dead.

And so this telling of Jesus’ baptism and wilderness season is a truth story about the process Jesus went through, from which he emerges full of purpose, awareness, vision, voice…

And the different folks witnessing to this truth have told the story in their own voices.

Isn’t it true that sitting around a table together, we all experience a moment differently?  Do you recall listening to someone else tell a story and wanting to correct them or add to the story, because you experienced it differently?

We are each unique.  We hear and see and experience the very same things in different ways.  It is no wonder, these Biblical accounts differ and vary – with each story teller, weaving events in the order and to communicate the messages THEY remember.

Most often I think we see our differences with annoyance.  We can’t fathom how someone could see something some way.  We cannot imagine how someone reaches the conclusions they have or why they vote the way they do…  But our Biblical witness is itself a celebration of our diversity.

Each voice in the Bible,
different as it is,
from different status or means,
different education or background,
in different seasons of life,
whether writing a series of events,
theologizing about those events,
or ministering to the needs of those around them,
whether imparting wisdom on the young,
or poetically waxing on about love…

…each of these voices witnesses to God.

Like Jesus and these Biblical witnesses, we too are called to bear witness to God.

Our rich diversity is part of the wealth we bring to the stories.  And it is in the sharing and hearing of these stories, across all our lines and divisions, that we more accurately discern the work and will of God. For our God is not constrained! Our God is out and about!  Our God is reaching across oceans and borders; without internet, satellite, or phone line, the Spirit is moving.

May we listen for God everywhere.  May we listen to how God is moving and shaking and calling, even those we might otherwise dismiss, whether we think them on the wrong side of the aisle or perhaps the wrong side of the tracks…  And may we too witness to God’s incredible work in our own lives.  For God is doing a work in and through us, and it’s light and life – not something to be hidden – but something to be shared and multiplied.

God is indeed doing a new thing.  It springs forth!

Can we see it?

May we listen and follow, joining in the creative, redemptive work of our God, carrying the torch and shining a light for all those to come.

May it be!

“Be Mine”

Rev. Katherine Todd
John 4:1-26
Psalm 63:1-8

John 4:1-26

Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John”—although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”

Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!”

The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Psalm 63: 1-8

O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands and call on your name.

My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.

Valentines Day is Wednesday. The shops are already full of red and pink gifts.  Hearts are everywhere.  Candies and chocolates, roses and jewelry stock the shelves.

But Valentines Day can be a tricky business.

Even couples who have known one another a long time still struggle to find new ways of expressing their love and devotion.

Ads tell us jewelry is the answer. Beautiful images of beautiful couples in beautiful places make love look easy.

But those of us who’ve loved or been loved know the story has many more shades.  Love passes through days of sunshine and warm breezes as well as the days of winds and storms and pelting rain.  Love knows all seasons.

And so Valentine’s Day is much more than what its marketed to be.

And for those in seasons and years and lifetimes of singleness, whether by choice or by circumstance, Valentine’s Day can feel like a giant conspiracy to make you feel bad about your life.

What I want to say today is that there is intimacy available to us in God that far exceeds the human intimacy we may know in this lifetime.

I say this to no way diminish the value of human love.  Love is a precious gift!  It changes us.  It stays with us.  Love can give us life and sustain us!  So if you have experienced love in this lifetime that blew you away, that changed everything, that opened your eyes and heart to things you’d never known before,… know that this human love is a glimmer, a glimpse into the height and depth and breadth of God’s love for us.

And so as we approach this holiday celebrating love, let us remember the One who loved us first.  Scripture reminds us that
we love
because God first loved us.

So if we want to know love beyond human understanding…
If we long to belong and feel cherished…
If we yearn to show love to those around us…
we need to spend time basking in the love and presence of God. 

Who else has gone to hell and back again to show us that NOTHING in all of creation can separate us from the love of God?!

So in moments alone, our God invites us.
In the sweetness of the morning, our God is calling.
In the quietness of a starry night, our God whispers to us.

In the embrace of a cozy bed,
in the warmth of a fuzzy blanket,
in the delight of comfort food…

In fierce protection,
in justice won,
in truth spoken…

In eyes that see,
in firm words of correction,
in loving hands that guide…

In the knowing eyes of a dear friend,
in the warm embrace of a loved one,
in midnight conversations when the ground beneath us is trembling….

In all these moments,
through this wondrous creation, in beautiful works of art, and food made with love…

In the kindness of strangers, the love of family, the thoughtfulness of a friend, the tenderness of a lover….

Our God is showering us with love.

The Giver of all good things is delighting in you.
You, who God has made on purpose and without mistake.
You, who God knows entirely, without your speaking a word…
You are God’s chosen, God’s delight!

And it is not because of anything you’ve done or not done.
God loves us because of who God is.

And so on this Valentine’s Day, remember
that all our loving,
all our compassion and care,
all acts of love
find their beginning in God – who made this world and all that is in it and called it all GOOD!

And may we let this incredible love draw us closer
Invite us deeper
Lead us further
Into that fullness of life, that quality of life that makes life worth living!

Christ came that we might have life and have it to the full!  Christ came to give us that eternal life Jesus spoke with the woman at the well about, that gushing up from within quality of life.  Now when we hear the word eternal life, most of us may think of the afterlife & think that’s the end of story, but that is only PART of the story.  In fact, the Greek word translated eternal life is Aionios, and it means an age-long, unending, not brief or fleeting, and it means quality.  So when you read eternal life, know that it’s referring to that non-fleeting quality of life that Christ ushers into our lives.  Eternal life is that enduring fullness of life, springing up from within like a fountain, quenching our deepest thirsts.

It’s not a hyper-spiritual thing.   It’s not a disembodied thing.  It’s not life with our spirit on fire and our hearts, minds, and bodies on ice.

Our God MADE our hearts and spirits, our minds and our bodies, and God called them good!

Eternal life,
quality of life,
wholeness of life,
is life in the full– involving every bit of us – body and soul, mind and spirit.

Our God wants to give us the juicy good life!

It is not a life without pain.  It is not a life without struggle or fight.  It is not life that turns a blind eye to injustice or evil.  But is it life that can be made to grow even through ashes, even through the rocky soil of injustice, even among the thorns of our sins that ensnare us…  Our God is actively speaking life into these dry bones, raising up beauty from these ashes… The God who raised Jesus from the dead is still alive and moving and working and living in you and in me.

May we tune our hearts to God.
Listening for God’s voice
Recognizing God’s love, poured out
Rejoicing in the new life God can bring even from pain.
And knowing, down deep in the depths of our souls,
Just how unfailing,
how stubborn,
how faithful and enduring
is the love of God we’ve been shown in Christ Jesus our Lord.

And so I invite you, as you listen to this next song, to let it be for you a prayer,
A prayer asking God to meet you – in all the ways that matter most –
And to ever keep you
within the strong and tender arms
of a divine and matchless love
that knows no end.

“The Invitation to Awe”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Mark 9:2-8
1 Corinthians 4:1-7

Mark 9:2-8

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

1 Corinthians 4:1-7

Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God.

I have applied all this to Apollos and myself for your benefit, brothers and sisters, so that you may learn through us the meaning of the saying, “Nothing beyond what is written,” so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of one against another. For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?

Servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries…

You know we spend a lot of time talking about Jesus and how we might truly serve Christ with our very lives, but we do not spend a lot of time considering the mysteries.

Mysteries, by very definition, elude our understanding.
God, by very definition, eludes our understanding.
God is mystery.

How ironic: Christ is our clearest revelation of God – through Christ we have a window into the heart of God – and yet with all this knowledge, if we remain honest with ourselves and one another, we still stand mystified before a God we can only glimpse but never fully understand.

This is a very difficult place to be.

Many of you, I’m sure, know those who have sought to nail God down in one way or another – to define and declare who God is and who God is not, with varying shades of permanent marker. And yet the subject of all our study and seeking remains elusive; God keeps moving.  God keeps breaking out of the boxes we have tried to hold God in and shattering the idols we have made of God, in our minds and hearts.

We have tried to speak for God.  We have tried out the judgement seat.  We want very much to know how this all will end.  We want to see justice shown to our oppressors and mercy shown to ourselves. We want to say who is in and who is out, who is acceptable and who is not.  We want to draw lines around the God we understand,…

And this is why we see the Israelite leadership reeling in the face of this Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is saying things about God that challenge their judgements and assumptions.  Jesus is touching the untouchables, healing the outcasts and bringing them back in, forgiving sinners, and condemning the very act of judging one’s fellow travelers…

The old wineskins that held the little bit they understood of God, could not contain this fiery new revelation of God in Jesus.  Jesus did not finish off the sinners, as everyone expected.  Rather Jesus came not to condemn but that the world might be saved and that ALL might come to knowledge of the truth.  Jesus began leveling the manmade hierarchy of human righteousness – declaring it utterly useless, framed in God’s righteousness.

And so Jesus began systematically destroying every idol God’s people had made of God.

Jesus does this in our lives too – turning our judgements on their heads, turning the mirror back onto us, opening our eyes to our unifying, utter need for God’s mercy and grace.

And when we let loose these idols, when we let go of the illusion that we know and understand God, we are left with the questions, the gray, the unknown, honesty,…

We are left with mystery. We are to be stewards of God’s mystery.

How do we be a steward of mystery?

Might we hold what we have understood in Jesus and believe by faith – in tension with – what we do not know and cannot see of God?
Can we celebrate this God who is wholly above all that we can see or understand?
Can we worship a God who eludes our understanding?
Can we see Jesus transfigured on the mountaintop and trust God in the unknowing?
Can we experience good and evil and trust God to make right all that is wrong?
Can we pour out our doubts and questions before our loving God, trusting God to reveal to us all that is needed, in the right time?

We serve a God who is mystery.
When the knowledge of our very selves eludes us, how can we expect to understand and know the God of the Universe?

As much as God’s mystery may frustrate our desires to know
And to understand
…and perhaps to control…
May we consider, for a moment, the invitation in mystery.
Mystery invites us to faith.  It invites us to trust.  It invites us to acknowledge that God is God and we are not.  And that knowledge invites us to worship at Christ’s feet!

Christ invites us to follow, not lead,
To listen before speaking,
To walk by faith and not by sight,
To believe in things impossible for mortals but possible for God,
To hope, even when shadows fall and darkness seems to claim the day…

May we embrace the mystery.

May we allow our bodies and souls to relax in the knowledge that WE DO NOT NEED TO KNOW, that all that is needful will be provided.

We are not made to hold all the mysteries of the universe in our hands.

But we are made a mystery.

As God’s handiwork, each of us bears witness to God.  We bear the mark of our Maker.
As followers of Jesus Christ, we live the mystery of God with us!
God dwells within us and shines through us!
Defying logic,
fulfilling justice in love,
God has poured out the Spirit on all flesh. God chooses us!
And we bear the mysterious light of God into the world that all might come to know this mysterious love of God, walking by faith and not by sight…

Let us pray:

In those moments, when understanding eludes us…
In seasons of darkness, where we cannot see the way that lay ahead…
When we come to the end of ourselves, standing at the edge of all we can see and understand…
May we worship.
May we breathe in the mystery that is You
And relax into the awareness that You are God, and we are not,…
And that You,
For some mysterious reason,
Have chosen to love us.
And letting go of the reigns,
May we find our rest and place our hope
In You.