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“Love, Loss, and Unquenchable Light”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Psalm 90:13-16
2 Corinthians 4:5-12

Psalm 90:13-16

Turn, O Lord! How long?
Have compassion on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us,
and as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be manifest to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.

2 Corinthians 4:5-12

For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.

We all respond to tragedy and injustice in our own ways.

Sometimes, we replay the events, on an endless loop to see if there’s anything different we could have done.
Sometimes we brew, like hot water over coffee grinds.  We stew on events.  We stew, hot with unquenching anger.
Sometimes we cry a river such that we wonder if there is any end to our grief or if it will drown us.
Sometimes we push it down. We mask it with stimulants, drugs, busyness, distraction…

And many of us have done all these things at different times.

Sometimes the feelings of loss leave us feeling utter alone and lonely.
Sometimes despair follows suit, and we cannot see any light at the end of our tunnels of pain.
Sometimes we feel sorry for ourselves, as thing after thing always seems to happen to us.

Why us?  Why now?  Why this? Why me?

Grief is one of the hardest parts of being human and being emotionally awake and alive.  And yet it is the shadow of joy and meaning.

This scripture today calls to me from the places of pain.  It invites me to reconsider my narrative, to revisit my story, to wonder if my story is bigger than the one I tell.

Is it possible all the pain, all the suffering, all the injustice, and the evil I have seen is making my joy all the sweeter, my hope all the more precious, my witness all the brighter?

To me, such suggestions can feel offensive.  How dare someone speak to me about good coming from all the evil – as though goodness justifies the presence of evil or injustice.  That thought is offensive beyond believe.  I feel any god who does evil just to make the good seem all the better is twisted indeed.

I do not think that is what our scripture is saying.

And while well meaning folks from the depths of time and I imagine forever in the future will continue to try and lesson our pain by dismissing it or giving us a trite answer or silver lining, I do believe this is true nonetheless:  that God’s goodness shines all the brighter in the darkness of this world, that hope shines all the brighter shining into the depths of despair, that a tapestry of joy and beauty is only breathtaking when it tells the whole story – stories of gain and loss, of joy and sorrow, of justice denied and justice won, of love and letting go…

Our paths of grief are holy journeys.  They are journeys we walk alone, in the truest sense.

And yet, our God can be seen reaching out to us in the smallest and tenderest of ways….
Through the rain and clouds
In the warmth of sunshine and cool of shade
In memories of life and joy and love shared
In overcoming
In a scripture verse that comes to mind, just when we need it
In a song on our lips, when words are not enough
In a kindness from a stranger
In a word, well-timed, and exactly what we need…

Scripture says we have the light and knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.  We have been given this precious and life-giving gift of coming to know God through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.

And this is a game changer.

This is hope from hopelessness.  This is power over death.  This is new life after violence, tragedy, loss, and utter evil.

This precious gift means our lives are more than they appear.

Jesus has shown us, unequivocally, that God is more powerful than even death itself.  The forces of this world, the forces that seem to reign in every other way, are not the end of our stories.  For God is life and light and hope and truth and peace…

Our God has shown us that things are never only what they seem.  But God is using ALL things for good.  Our God is making beauty from ashes.

Our God is taking back the last word on every evil thing under the sun.

Our God is making life spring up from the places where death seemed to have the last word.

Today we have a labyrinth because of the beauty of one life, one soul.  I see neighbors walking the paths, and sitting on the benches.  AA group members pray in the space.  Dog park users find quiet moments to themselves there.

We have significantly reduced the polluting run-off from our front lawn, turning our lawn from a slip-&-slide of rain water to a verdant diversity of plants to catch the rain and provide sanctuary to butterflies, birds, bees, and people alike.

And this is only one tangible, living reminder of a precious life.  God only knows the many, many other lives touched and changed and made whole from Cindy Creasy ’s life.

The very best podcast I’ve ever listened to was put out by Radiolab and it is entitled, “From Tree to Shining Tree.”  In it the hosts followed the journey of a Forestry Professor in her love of the forest. When she was only a child, her family was staying at their cabin in the woods when they heard the yelping of their beloved dog Jinx.  Following the sound of his crying, they found him finally in the very bottom of their outhouse, covered in toilet paper and everything else.  The family had widened the top of the hole, so they could get low enough to grab him and rescue their sweet dog.  They’d thrown him into the lake, with a lot of yelping and cursing, and he was cleaned off and fine!  But that experience had given her, at a young age, a window into the life of the forest, that was under the soil.  When they’d widened the hold of the outhouse, they encountered a web of roots under the soil that blew her small mind away.  That’s when she realized that there was at least as much if not more going on under the forest floor as there was going on above.

She became a forester and was in charge of following the health of forests after whole areas of trees were clear cut and replanted.  She began to notice that when one tree was removed, another tree near it , of another species altogether, would become diseased and die.  And she wanted to know why.

She remembered that experience from her childhood of discovering the web of tree roots underground and wondered if there was something more going on underground.

She performed an experiment where she sealed several select trees in plastic bags and then filled the bags with radioactive gas.  The trees would then suck up the gas in photosynthesis.  And the team used a Geiger counter to sense the radioactive particles.  They found these trees all hot with the radioactivity, but to their surprise, the radioactivity was spreading to many, many surrounding trees.  The found that trees were in fact sharing their food underground with other trees, and the older the tree, the more networked it was underground to other trees, connecting to 20, 40, 50 other trees underground. So despite being quarantined to only a few trees, the radioactivity spread underground to many, many others, and the team was able to map this underground connectivity.

The name that has developed for this underground network of trees is the Wood Wide Web.  😊  Scientists are only recently discovering that trees have a symbiotic relationship with fungi underground.  These fungi extract from the soil minerals that a tree needs to become woody and strong and gives that to the tree in exchange for sugar the tree derives from photosynthesis.  They work together in a mutually beneficial way – so much so that the fungi, getting between 20-80% of a trees sugar, would not be able to sustain life without the trees. And the trees would not even actually reach a height or maturity beyond that of a simple weed without minerals from the fungi!

And this relationship goes beyond a simple exchange.  It is not a one-time deal.  Rather they have each other’s backs.  The fungi in fact both store and channel the energy.  So if a tree if having a hard time, the fungi will give sugar back to the tree.  And trees will share their energy with other trees having a hard time.  Not only that, trees communicate with one another through this underground fungi network, sending alerts to neighboring trees, if there is a threat to any one of them.  That way, the neighboring trees can up their production of bitter chemicals or whatever it needs to fend off the foe, be it an animal or insect.

As if this all didn’t blow my mind enough, what I found most profound was that a tree in its final stages of life will transfer its store of energy to new trees.  As some climates are changing and temperature zones have warmed, some trees cannot adjust and become sickly.  What scientists are finding is that these trees will transfer their carbon and sugar to other youngers tree in the forest (not the tree’s own babies or species even).  These are the trees that have the best chance at being able to adapt to the change in temperature, or what have you.  So its as though, these trees, or the fungi below, are looking out for the well-being and future of the entire forest.

The world all around us is full of life, miraculous.  We only understand a portion of the endless wonder and connections all around us.

We cannot see, until perhaps we are face to face with our Creator, just how many lives our lives have touches, for better or for worse.  But when we bear this most precious gift of the love and light of our Lord Jesus Christ in our hearts and minds and lives, we become life-channels of the life and power and love that raised Jesus from the dead!  Like these trees, we become part of the life and wholeness and hope of creation, all around us.  That life and hope and energy does not simply extinguish when we die.

It is never lost.

It is never wasted.

But it spreads and is deposited into the lives of so many who are forever changed because of the light and love of Jesus Christ working in us.

Some teach that the Christian life is one of undimmed victory.  And while that is true in some way, it does not mean the absence of sorrow and pain.  After all, the One we follow was nailed to a cross in one of the most cruel and painful types of deaths.

We too will suffer in this world.  We too encounter set back after setback.  We too come face to face with evil and injustice at times.  We too face the slow or swift decline of our bodies and minds…

We are mortal.  We are made from dust and to dust we return…

And yet God is at work in our lives, bringing life even out of death.

Our God is at work shining light and hope, even in the depths of darkness and despair.

While death is at work in our bodies, LIFE is at work in Christ.  So death and evil, deterioration and injustice do not have the last word in our lives.  In fact, God is actively turning all the struggle and pain into life and hope – all the more extraordinary, all the more rich, all the sweeter for the pain we have experienced.

We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.

Praise be to God, for this life to the fullest that Christ has made available to us,
both now
and forever in Christ’s presence.  Halleluia!

“A New Creation – Heart by Heart”

Rev. Katherine Todd
John 20:19-23
2 Corinthians 5:1-6, 16-20a

John 20:19-23

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

2 Corinthians 5:1-6, 16-20a

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling— if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord— for we walk by faith, not by sight.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ.

More and more in this life, I’m finding myself craving a different sort of Messiah than we received in Jesus of Nazareth.  Scripture says that the old is gone and the new has come.  We are a new creation in Jesus Christ!  And yet, I struggle with the same issues, day after day.

I wanted everything to be set right.  I wanted my struggle with temptation and sin to be no more.  I wanted evil and sin to stop, for good.  I want to feel all shiny and new, and not struggle with the same issues, I had yesterday.

But that is not the Messiah we get.  We do not get the Savior we want.  But perhaps we have gotten the Savior we need.

The kind of Savior I want grabs hold of the whole world & forces everyone’s hand.  The kind of Messiah many of Jesus’ followers wished him to be was the same – the kind who would shake the Roman government’s grasp off Israel and claim his rightful place as King of the land.  We want a Savior to do all the things we cannot do. We want a Savior to control and make things right, right before our eyes – now and forever.

And this is so not what we get in Jesus of Nazareth.

This Messiah knew his place. This Messiah knew he was the Son of God and yet still allowed himself to be crucified, for all to see.

This Messiah could stop storms, heal diseases, and raise the dead, with his mere words, and yet he did notrescue himself from the pain and suffering. He did notheal all people, everywhere for all times,…with a word. He did not stop all storms for all times.  He has not stopped our loved ones from dying.

This Messiah does things in the most opposite way than what we want.
This Messiah shows power in death on the cross.
This Messiah shows leadership in servanthood, washing the dirty feet of his followers.
This Messiah does not pick the cream of the crop to be on his team, but he chooses folks who were largely simple and uneducated to carry his light and life to the world.

This Messiah is not what I crave.
This Messiah does not stop all my suffering and pain.
This Messiah does not rescue me from sin and evil, at least not in the way and timing that I want.
And so what does it mean that the old is finished and gone, the new has come?

In some ways, the old way still seems to rule and carry on.  The rich get richer.  The poor get poorer…  Still people are oppressed.  Still those most vulnerable are preyed upon.  Our struggles with sin, persist…

But at the same time, everything is different.

While before my sins were a death sentence, now I have the hope of forgiveness and belonging.

While before I was caught in cycles of sin and death, now I can receive the life-giving love and forgiveness of my Maker and choose to live by the Spirit of God, more and more.

While before knowledge and understanding was only for the elite and educated few, now God’s Spirit is being POURED OUT on rich and poor, young and old, man, woman, and child.

While at the surface, everything seems the same.

Just below the surface, in the depths everything is changing.

God’s love, God’s Spirit, God’s forgiveness is changing the deepest parts of human ourselves.  Jesus’ life and ultimate sacrifice are doing what no human can do:  heal the human heart.

So while I want God to deal with all these symptoms.

Christ, in God’s wisdom, is dealing with the root of the problem, the heart of the matter.

And as with most lasting change, the results come over time, as people participate in the life-giving work of God in their lives and in this world. And just as patients will make their own choices about whether to follow their doctor’s advice and counsel or not, so we are continually making choices as to whether or not to join in with what our God is doing.  The more we seek and listen and follow our Savior’s lead, the more healing and life we usher into the world.  The more we seek, listen to, and follow after our own purposes and preferences and interests, the more we can grow deaf and dumb to the Spirit of God.  For seeking after, listening to, and following after God are all active muscles of faith we are called to engage.  When we do not use those muscles of faith, they atrophy.  And if, in their place, we are listening to the voices of everyone around us and even our own hearts, to the exclusion of our Lord, we can become masters of following in the ways of humanity and the world, but complete amateurs at following in God’s ways.

Becoming a disciple of Christ is more than mere lip service.
It always has been.
It is not about believing all the right things.
It is not even about ascribing to a certain set of beliefs.

Being a disciple of God means to turn toward Christ, positioning our whole selves in relation to Christ.  It means spending time in the presence of Christ.  It means quieting our hearts and minds, our hopes and fears.  It means surrendering control and trusting God to guide us better than we could guide ourselves. 

Discipleship is an active choice, day by day, moment by moment.
Discipleship is carried out by actively using our muscles of faith, and choosing to seek, listen, and follow.

Discipleship is not life insurance.  In fact, our leader allowed himself to be killed in one of the most cruel and painful ways.
Discipleship is not a way to get ahead in the world; Jesus’ commitment to speaking the truth and walking in love made him enemies in high places.
Discipleship is not easy. It is not popular, even in our Christian-friendly culture; because really we value autonomy and individuality; thus, surrendering our will to God’s bigger work is actually not very bold or sexy.

Discipleship is a giving over of our lives to the One who has given his life to breath true life into our dry bones,
It is a giving over of our lives to the One who has given his life to shine light into our darkest depths,
It is a giving over of our lives to the One who is making whole, all that has been broken.

Despite how much our culture seems friendly to Christianity, there are marked differences in them.  No culture, no company, no business will adopt Christ’s model in full.  It is a model of self-sacrifice.  It is a model of servanthood.  It is a model of power through perceived weakness.

Christ goes against all we are taught.

But what I can witness to, in my short years, and imperfect life of faith, is that God is faithful. Our God knows what we need.  When God speaks, it is water in the desert, life to dusty dry bones, hope from the depths of despair.  When we tune into God’s presence, when we actively remember God’s love poured out, when we give thanks for all the blessings and gifts in our lives, we can find ourselves standing on holy ground, on solid ground, before the Maker of the Universe!

It is no small thing to be a tool in the hands of our God.
It is no small thing to be wholly known and wholly loved by the God of the Universe!
It is no small thing to be called a friend of God, Child, Beloved. 

Friends, do not be discouraged by the winds that blow.
Do not lose heart by the same old stories of sin and oppression and injustice.
Do not think that all is lost and these stories are only stories…

For in fact, our God is on the move.
Our God is on the loose.
Poured out in hearts and minds,…
Forgiveness poured out for the whole world!…

Light and love and life are on the move, inviting hearts and healing us from the inside out, so that our whole lives become radiators of God’s love,…

And God’s love is never lost or wasted.  God’s love was poured out on us all in the life and death and resurrection of our loving Savior.  Love is never wasted.

So let us be disciples.
Let us exercise our muscles of faith, seeking and listening and following.
Let us join in the amazing work of God, living, moving, radiating heart to heart.

And may we find ourselves smack in the middle of God’s powerful working in our lives, our culture, and the world,

Truly living as disciples of Christ, ambassadors of God’s love!

May it be in us.