“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.

“How Will I Know?”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Deuteronomy 18:15-22
Matthew 7:15-20

Deuteronomy 18:15-22

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. This is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb onthe day of the assembly when you said: “If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.” Then the Lord replied to me: “They are right in what they have said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.” You may say to yourself, “How can we recognize a word that the Lord has not spoken?” If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.

Matthew 7:15-20

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.

This week I was listening to a podcast by one of my favorite social scientist reporters, Shankar Vedantam. He was interviewing a teacher of American History. In her classes, she shows her students newspaper clippings from around the time they were born, and she observes many responses – from laughter to shame – but the profound feeling that usually sweeps the class is a sense of shock that people really believed the things that were being talked about.

And yet, if they press in further, inevitably they can draw parallels between the old news and the news of today.

In some ways we feel shocked, perplexed, and sometimes ashamed by the views of our ancestors. And in other ways, we can see the same issues playing out – with different characters and back-drops – through-out all of history.

We are both vastly different
And ever the same…

When we, as a Christian faith community, look back on the stories that have shaped our faith and the people in those stories, we can be equally shocked and amazed…while feeling connected on some level, as the same stories play out among us now.

Looking back at the Israelite people, after they have escaped Egypt and as they wait for Moses at the edge of Mount Horeb – waiting on the Lord and growing more anxious by the day…
We can clearly point out their mistakes. As if with amnesia, they totally forget the miraculous and powerful acts of God that brought them safely out from under the yoke of slavery and oppression. Rather than feeling cherished and chosen by God, as they are, they begin to feel lost and alone in this desert of uncertainty, without comforts or direction. And they build a shiny statue of gold – a golden calf, comfort from Egypt, something they can see and worship.

We watch all this, gasping at their choices.
And yet, we too grow o-so-anxious when the way before us is unclear,

When we cannot see God moving or working, or opening doors quickly enough on our behalf…

So we both gape and relate to this people, as they feel adrift, waiting for Moses, who takes ages meeting with God on the mountain.

And so our scripture today reflects back on this people. In our scripture, we read that after all goes down there at the base of Mt Horeb, the people cry out – “We cannot hear God’s voice orsee God’s great fire again, or we will die.” And God talks with Moses, the presumed author of Deuteronomy, saying, “They were right.” In other words, the people are correct in saying theycannot handle hearing my voice because indeed they cannot. They are right. And this is why God has raised up Moses to lead them. This is why God will raise up more prophets for them – so they might have mediators between them and God – a fellow human to bring them the Word of God.

And God here makes clear, that once God has spoken to them through the prophets, the people will be held responsible for that knowledge. They will be expected to respond in faith and trust, obediently following the Word of God to them. Because as we’ve noted these past few weeks in worship – when God reveals something to us, we are then responsible. We see this theme repeated again here. The people are responsible for the messages God sends them.

But God recognizes this leaves the people in a particular dilemma. There will be false prophets.There will be those who speak falsely in God’s name. So how will they KNOW who to believe, what to follow?

To this, God assures them that a prophet speaking falsely in God’s name will die, and that thepeople can know false prophets from true by whether or not their words prove true.

Now this sounds all well and good, but as we know – especially when we want to get out of doing something or when we are questioning the wisdom of what appears to be God’s Word… We can find every shade of gray. Discerning whether or not a prophet’s words come true is a tricky business. Sometimes, the words come true over lifetimes and generations. How are WE to know and follow, in our day to day lives?

Now generations of God’s people wrestle with this question,
And then Jesus comes,
And they are still wrestling with this core question – “How will we know?”

So Jesus speaks to this very question, with images of fruit. Good fruit trees bear good fruit. Thorn bushes do not bear grapes. Thistles do not bear figs. Good fruit comes from a good tree. So you will know them by their fruits.

So in this age-old question of “How will we know?”, Jesus speaks in an image.

Many will claim to bring the Word of God to us, and so we must exercise wisdom. Jesus directs us to look beyond the exteriors – the facades, the “sheep’s clothing,” the images of piety and religiosity – and to look for substance born from the prophet’s own life. “You will know them by their fruits,” Jesus says.

And so Jesus invites us to step back a bit. Jesus invites us to take in the big picture.

I must admit that when I was in the early years of my journey in listening to God, I used to get worried at so many things. While God’s callings can jump off a page of scripture, imprinting itself on our minds, our own fears can also draw us in – like a moth to flame.

Fear mimics calling, in its drive.

Leaders from the dawn of time have capitalized on this fact, keeping entire peoples under their thumbs through fear. Fear motivates us. In fact, it has been shown to be a stronger motivator than pleasure. (We are more likely to run from fear than to run to pleasure.)

So I used to read a scripture or a devotional, perhaps, and both God’s voice and my own voices of fear would be talking in my ears. I felt anxious. It left me feeling directionless and afraid.

But over time, I have found that this same principle Jesus gave us applies in our daily walk with God – as we come before God directly, directly because Jesus has paid our debt and called us brothers and sisters in the family of God,…directly because God has removed our sins from us, by the blood of Christ, and God has poured out the Spirit of God on all flesh.

And so WE are now given this opportunity to come before God in prayer, to speak and tolisten… We are now afforded the opportunity to hear God’s Word and to follow, to speak truth and make God known in our very lives…

But this leaves us with the age-old, classic burden of “how do we know?!”

How do we know what is God’s voice and what is our fear? How do we know what is God’s Word to us and what is simply the tapes that play on repeat in our brains, baked into our minds and hearts by our families and communities, from the time we are born?…

How do we hear???

So I say, let’s return to Christ’s words to us: “You will know a tree by its fruit.”

Christ has given us a litmus test. And Scripture can be a guide:

God is love. Whoever loves is of God.

Love is kind. It is not envious or boastful, arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends….

Our words should build up and not tear down.
We are to make certain we do not become a stumbling block to others.
God desires that ALL shall be saved and come to knowledge of the truth.
God came to us, just as we were, bringing healing, speaking truth, setting captives free, proclaiming the year of God’s favor!…

Scriptures are an excellent guide to us. They give us glimpses into the character and heart of God – far beyond and more true than fears or idols of God.

…And so we test the thoughts in our minds.
Does a thought invite – invite us to take action?
Does a thought consume? Does it suck away all our life energy and cloak us in fear?

Does a word center you? Does it ground you? Does it calm you, as if Jesus himself were before you, looking upon you with eyes of loving compassion?
Or does it send your heart into panic?

Does a message invite you back to God? Or does it condemn.

Remember, even Christ’s words to the woman caught in adultery were not to condemn. They were words of rescue. They were words of safety along with the command to “go and sin no more.”

God’s discipline is meant to restore us. God’s truth sets us free.

As you listen for God’s Word to you, in your everyday life, during breakfast, as you watch TV, as you plan your schedule, as you talk with friends and with strangers… As you listen for God’s Word to you, you can test the Word by its fruit – by what it bears out in you.

Before I could sort and name the voices in my mind and heart – both those of God and those of my fears and failures – I used to feel stopped in my tracks. I felt passionate to live for God, but I was terrified of making a wrong move, and this stopped me from LIVING OUT my faith, from putting my faith into action, from taking risks and following God in uncertain new terrain…

I am learning to sort out the call of God by discerning which Word bears good fruit in my life.

Whatever is good, whatever is pure, whatever is true, whatever is honorable and worthy or praise…follow your God in these paths.

Our God is guiding us, in peace through the storm, in an overflowing cup – even while surrounded by our enemies, in love that overcomes hate, in light that overcomes darkness.

As we grow in communion with God, day by day, may we come to KNOW the voice of our God. May it be to us a beacon in the night. May we rightly discern the call of God in our lives and follow our loving God, wherever God might lead us.