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“Wilderness Road to the Promised Land”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Exodus 16:2-15
Philippians 1:21-30

 

Exodus 16:2-15

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.”

Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’” And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’”

In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.

 

Philippians 1:21-30

For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.

Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

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

 

The Israelites have escaped the prison of their temporary home in Egypt.  They have become free!  And that means change, A LOT of change.

 

Though they were enslaved, oppressed, and beaten down, they did have food to eat.
Food fueled the Egyptian labor-force.

And these Israelites do not remember what it is like to be free.  They have acclimated.  They have adapted.  They have their comforts, their routines, their simple pleasure – all of which have been uprooted with this run for freedom.

 

The new generations only know enslavement, so they’ve not gotten to exercise their muscles of self-will, of self-determination, and perhaps of self-respect.  Instead of plotting their own journey, they’ve been going along, following the orders of another.

And so this unimagined freedom now calls on them to grow in ways they may have become weak.  They must forage their own food, build their own dwellings, set their own course.  And if they fail to do so, they will be hungry, they will be thirsty, …they may starve.

And these are precisely their complaints to Moses as they journey through the wilderness.  There is no water.  They are thirsty!  The water is bitter.  They are thirsty!  This miss meat.  They are hungry! 

 

And they start to reminisce back to their days of enslavement in Egypt.  THERE they at least had meat.  Better to die a slave, eating meat, than to starve a free soul, they complain.

 

 

And it strikes me, that as we venture into the unknown territory of freedom, we encounter risks, unknowns, fears, and discomforts.  But if we do not venture into freedom, we will surely die, never having lived.  For what is living, if it is not freedom?!

And I think of our journey as a church of God.

 

We see the path by which we came.  Those who came before built this gorgeous sanctuary at a time when churches were busting at the seams in America.  The wars had ceased, the people had returned to faith and family, and babies were being born.  There was a faith in the church, a faith in organizations, a faith in institutions.  And so we came to this point:  education rooms were built to teach the children, youth, and adults about Jesus.  And this large and lovely sanctuary replaced our beautiful first sanctuary – now the fellowship hall.

We can see the path by which we came.   Just as the Israelites came to Egypt at a critical time – to survive famine and to thrive amidst it all – we came to this place because the times demanded it.

But just as the Israelite’s situation continued to evolve until they were enslaved to the Egyptians, we too have continued to change until we have become enslaved to our own building.  It’s simply far too big and aged and exquisite for our small band to easily maintain.  And so we are compelled to look toward a different future.  We must change or face our eventual death.

 

Like the Israelites, we sit at the brink – our food in hand, dressed, shoes on, ready to go.  We have been researching and preparing, praying and discerning in order to envision the pathway forward for our blessed congregation.

And we do not see the path ahead.  We can only see what came before.

And we are uncomfortable.  For in stepping out into the unknown – in negotiating with potential renters and partners in mission and ministry – we lose our sense of control.  We cannot predict next moves.  We do not yet know where our provision, our water, our food, our provision will come from.  And we grow anxious.

 

And we too start to grumble and complain: If we could just keep doing what we’ve always done, at least we’d be comfortable, but now God, have you brought us out here, that we may perish in the wilderness?  …In the places of discomfort and unknown?

God are you bringing us out in order to smite us more quickly?

God, if we’d just kept going as we were, we would die, but at least we’d die singing our favorite hymns…

 

Does this feel at all relevant?  Does it touch on some of our experiences?

 

Transitions are extraordinarily difficult, especially for some of us.  It often comes down to how we’re wired.  Uncertainties can feel intolerably risky.  Loss of control can feel like a death.

Transitions are hard. 

 

…And yet God calls us out.
God calls us out of darkness and into the light.
God is calling us out of death and into life.

 

And that life together will be different.
It will take time to build up and tear down.
It will take planning and starting.  …Stopping and revising and starting again.  …Over and over.

 

Like the Israelites, we will reach places where we cannot see a path forward, where death feels imminent.  But when its God doing the calling, God doing the inviting, God doing the freeing, God provides.  But not before we complain.  And not always before our discomforts and fear.

 

And so we have choices – to trust or to doubt.  Is God leading us?  And if God is, can we trust God?

We have choices – to trust one another or to doubt.  Do we believe that where two or more are gathered in God’s name that God is there too?

We have choices – do we believe that God is using ALL things for good?  Even our individual and collective mistakes?

We have choices – do we believe that God will continue to direct and redirect us as we take faithful steps?  Are we tuning our ears to hear that still small voice saying, “This is the way.  Walk in it.”

 

 

And so, as we follow God out of the land of the familiar, the land of comfort, and the land of our eventual or sudden death,…will we trust?  Will we trust God and one another?

Will we trust God for our provision – even when we cannot yet see it on the horizon?

Will we trust God to meet our needs – providing familiar comforts, even as we journey outside the lines of our narrow worlds?

 

Do we believe that God is doing a work among us?

 

For if we do, then the invitation is to follow. 

 

The Israelites were blessed, in order to BE a blessing!  They were to be a city on a hill, a light in the darkness.  THROUGH THEM, the whole world would be blessed!  That was God’s plan.  But they couldn’t do it enslaved in Egypt.
They had to step out.
They had to journey through wilderness.
And God would indeed bless them and make them a blessing! 

 

Will we continue to step out?
Will we continue to release control?
Will we choose trust?

 

We cannot follow God if we refuse to move.
We cannot follow God if we refuse to grow, to be changed.
We cannot follow God if we are enslaved…to sin, to fear, to dissension, … or even to our building.
We cannot follow God if we’re intent on being the Leader and not the follower.
We cannot hold the reigns of control AND follow God.

 

But for those who follow,
Who venture into the unknown,
Who choose radical trust and work to build a new way of life,
There is miracle and wonder, halleluia’s and praise the Lord’s,
There is hard-won peace, provision, milk & honey…

 

THIS is the legacy of God’s children. 

Will we follow God boldly into the wilderness unknown? 

 

 

 

“My Refuge and My Fortress, My God in Whom I Trust”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Psalm 91:1-6, 9
1 Peter 4:12-14 and 5:6-11

 

Psalm 91:1-6, 9

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.

Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling place,

 

1 Peter 4:12-14 and 5:6-11

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.


 

This passage from 1 Peter feels strangely relevant. The world of today is vastly different from the world into which these words were written, but still we hear God speaking through the text and into our own stories.

Right now, many of us are working through incredible anxiety.  And it’s not that kind of anxiety of an imagined threat.  The threat is real.  Covid-19 is real.  300,000 people in the world dead from a virus only half a year old (in humans) is real.

The writer of 1 Peter gives this advice:

1 – Humble yourselves

2 – Casts your anxieties on God

3 – Discipline yourselves

4 – Resist the devil

 

Humility doesn’t feel at all relevant to our situation today, but on closer inspection, I see its wisdom.

That December when we discovered bed bugs in our home, I hit a new low.  Already overcoming obstacles, already beating the odds, already working overtime, already emotionally and physically exhausted, the life-altering presence of one itty-bitty bug rocked my world.  All my clothing & all fabrics and linens had to be washed, dried, and bagged.  The closest washer and dryers were a block away.  All furniture was to be moved 4 feet away from every wall.  But alas, the rooms were too small for that!  The pest company came to treat and then surprised me with the instruction as they left that I should remain in this state of upheaval for another 2 weeks.  If I was still getting bit after that, they would return for another treatment.  And two weeks after that…the same.  What I thought was a one day upheaval became a two week upheaval became a 4 week upheaval became a 6 week upheaval.  I caught sixty some bugs within that time, as they kept multiplying, and I learned how to catch them in the dead of night.

I lived with the uncertainty of not knowing where they’d come from.  It made me suspicious of everything & everyone & everywhere I’d been.  I lived with the anxiety of somehow carrying them to another person, place, or household.  How did they even operate?  What was the science?  How did I even make an informed decision?  And I lived with the complication of living out of bags for a month and a half – my furniture and rooms all discombobulated, a pile of bags of clothes in the living room floor…at Christmas.

It was my first Christmas in my new apartment, and I longed for it to feel like home.  I knew nothing makes a place a home like shared memories with family and friends, so my family had plans to come and celebrate Christmas at our place.  And then this happened.  And all our plans were to the wind.  I couldn’t even trust passing a gift to family or friends, without fear I’d also pass them the plague.

 

And in a Covid-19 context, I am surprised how similar the experiences are:  our routines are upheaved, our ways of being are being re-written, we cannot gather with others for fear of passing on illness or catching it ourselves, we cannot even shop for new clothes in a store, and our calendars and plans are all suspended indefinitely.

But of course, this time it is on a much grander scale.

And the stakes are higher:  I’ve not heard of anyone dying of bed bugs (though it certainly could be possible).

 

But that moment in which I felt I touched bottom – was through a long night of losing my dinner in the bathroom.  And in touching the bottom, I was able to push off and back upward, toward the light.  In that moment I reflected on how often I’d been this sick:  it had been rare.  I realized that my health was a gracious gift of God.  My health was a gift I’d never before paid much attention to.  I’d taken it for granted.  I realized that things could get MUCH worse than bed bugs.  I realized that things could be much more grave than a stomach illness.  And I was humbled, lying on the bathroom floor.  Every gift of God that I had enjoyed was truly a gift.  I’d not deserved them.  I wasn’t entitled to them.  And instead of complaining and bemoaning my situation, I started to give thanks.

Like Job, I’d felt very self-righteous.  I’d not done anything to deserve these plagues.  It wasn’t fair.  But in the dark despair of a lonely night, stuck in the bathroom, I humbled myself and began to give thanks.

Humility is indeed crucial.  And in this season of struggle, discomfort, and suffering, humility IS relevant.

 

Next the writer encourages us to cast our anxieties on God.

And this, my friends, is something I struggle to do.  Can I do my best in a moment – with what resources I have, with what knowledge I have, and leave the results to God?  Can I trust God with my deepest fears, hopes, and desires?  Can I wake from a fitful sleep of nightmares and turn to God in prayer, in resting, in stillness?

The writer of 1 Peter knows well that we are not equipped or expected to shoulder the weight of the worries of our lives or of the world on our shoulders.  That is GOD’s job.  And so he encourages us to cast our cares on God, because God cares for us.  We are loved with a unstopping, relentless, fierce, and steadfast love.  We are loved by Almighty God.  Can we not trust this One with all that matters most?  Can we cast our anxieties on God?

 

Third, the writer instructs the followers to be disciplined, to keep alert.  Temptation, fear, fear-mongering, lies, myths of scarcity, doubts of God’s love for us all come and stand tall around us, sometimes blocking out the sun entirely, especially when we feed them.  And so we must discipline our mind.  We must discipline our bodies.  God has given us wisdom, education, resources, data, skill, and so much more for the business of survival and prospering.  So let us do our part, let us discipline ourselves, and then may we cast our cares upon the God who cares for us.

 

Finally, we are instructed to resist the devil.  These temptations and fears come to steal, kill, and destroy.  They quench life.  They rob us of peace and of freedom and joy.  We are called to resist, standing steadfast in our faith – standing on God’s promises and in God’s presence, believing God’s word over our own fears.  Scripture declares, “Resist the devil, and he will flee.”  When we resist, when we stand firm, when we keep our eyes fixed and our minds set on God’s words to us, we renew our strength; waiting on the Lord, we mount up with wings, as eagles!

 

And so I find this instruction of 1 Peter quite helpful.  Our God is not apart from all that we are going through.  Our God is not far from the sufferings of this world.  Our God is near to the broken-hearted.  Our God hears the cries of the sick and the dying.

This whole world and everything in it belongs to our God, and nature itself obeys the command of our God.

While we cannot yet discern the path forward,…
While threat and risk emerge on all sides,…
Our God walks with us, in the joys and the pains.

So may we humble ourselves.
May we cast our cares upon God, who cares for us.
May we remain disciplined and alert.
And may we resist the devil and all our temptations,
That God’s words might reign in our minds and God’s peace in our hearts.

 

You are dear and dearly loved.
Rest in that love. 

 

“The Better Part”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Luke 10:38-42
1 John 4:19

 

Luke 10:38-42

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

 

1 John 4:19

We love because he first loved us.


 

I have heard this passage preached on so often, that I didn’t want to preach it.  I feel I could preach on it in my sleep, and if you’re like me, you start to tune out the things you’ve heard too often.  But on second thought I realized that this passage was appropriate for us because we have been very busy with many things.

Now I’d say most of what has occupied our time and energy, at least here, in this place, together, has been good things.  And I imagine that much of what fills your day to day, are good things.  But I imagine that you, like me, can loose sight of the important for the urgent.  You, like me, are probably not immune to the voices clamoring about you, asking for your time and attention.  And many of those voices are of those nearest and dearest to us, those we are charged to love and care for.  Some of those voices are the voices of others in this body of faith, asking if you might step up and step into roles of service in our community of faith.

 

Service is important.  Our Lord Jesus Christ served.  He served even those he was encouraged and expected to ignore.  Jesus’ life was service.  But in looking at the life of Jesus we also notice his life was that of rest and eating, retreating and being quiet and alone.  So many of the stories we hear of Jesus take place around a meal.  Some of the most striking stories occur when Jesus wakes from sleep to help folks who are facing life and death.   Or they occur when Jesus returns from leaving the disciples alone and finds them in a quandary or mess.  Countless stories of Jesus tell of him leaving the crowds with the disciples to rest and retreat.  And even more stories tell of Jesus retreating alone, and quite often to the top of a mountain.

Jesus, God’s only begotten Son, knew his earthly need for rest and repose, eating and sleeping, intimate time among friends and intimate time alone with God.  JESUS needed these things.  Therefore, how much more-so do WE need these things?

 

In the story we read today, two sisters, Mary and Martha, host Jesus as he passes through the village.  Now as you might guess, hosting involves many things, not least of which is the preparing of food.  This task fell to women pretty exclusively, and it consumed the largest portion of any day.  So to invite others into the home meant doubling one’s work, at the very least.

Martha was probably the planner.  She probably knew exactly what this invitation would entail for them that day.  And she probably wanted to show as much honor and respect to the teacher as she could.  It was a daunting task, especially when you factor in all the visitors who would have come to hear the teacher.  She needed Mary’s help, but Mary, perhaps as flighty as I can be, was attuned to Jesus’ words.  She was soaking them in.  She did not think about all the work needing to be done.  She was lost in thought and in this person through whom she felt more love and compassion than she’d ever known before…

And quite understandably, Martha complains to Jesus.  She expects Jesus to put Mary in her place – to remind her that she too is a servant to the occasion and not the beneficiary of all Martha’s work – but Jesus does nothing of the sort.  Jesus in fact defends Mary as having chosen the better thing.

 

How could Jesus?  After Martha is serving him?!  How could he look this gift-horse in the mouth?!  How could he defy social expectation and give Mary a pass on the cooking and cleaning?  How could he act as though he didn’t need to eat and drink – as though he didn’t need the services Martha was so diligently offering.

Well, I don’t know exactly how this played out.  We do not know so many things – such as the breadth or scope of work Martha was attempting.  She may have been trying to make the fanciest, most difficult dish she could – to show respect or possibly to show off…  We don’t know.  We don’t know if this was Mary’s usual behavior, or if this Teacher caught her so off guard that she completely forgot her usual duties…  We do not know.

But once we move through the shock and perhaps the initial offense of Jesus’ words to Martha, I hear a deep compassion for Martha.  Instead of a rebuke, I hear an invitation.  Jesus reminds Martha that she has a choice in all this hustle and bustle.  Jesus SEES how distracted and worried Martha is about so many things.  And he points to Mary as an example of what is good and needful.  Martha too can choose to stop and be, to listen and be present.

 

Now if I were Martha, I would feel enraged at this insinuation that my work was irrelevant or unnecessary.  But Jesus wasn’t necessarily saying that.  Perhaps they all would have chipped in to cook at some later point…  We do not know.  But if I were Martha, I would also find myself longing to stop and sit and be still.  I would have been beside myself with jealousy at Mary, sitting at the Teacher’s feet like that, without a care in the world but to listen to each word he said.

Could I abandon my lists and tasks like that?!

Could I pause the hurry and bustle of my mind like that?

Could I step off the treadmill and sit and be?

 

And this is where I think of all of us.  We take on many tasks in love and service to the Lord in this place.  This place of sanctuary and community is living and effective because of YOU.  Your passion and vision, your sweat and service, your diligence and expertise, your care and planning.  YOU make this place overflow with love.

 

…But we cannot fill another’s cup, if our well is empty.

We cannot love, unless we have been loved.

We cannot serve, unless our needs have been served.

 

To say it another way, “We love because God first loved us.”

 

 

And so very logically, if we are not attentive to sit and be still, if we are not pausing to listen to God’s words, our wells will surely run dry.  And when we run around trying to fill other’s wells while ours is dry, we usually end up spreading need and hurt more than plenty and love.  We cannot give what we do not have.  We need to be nourished by God’s word, sustained by God’s presence, held in God’s unfailing love…before we are made ready to go out and serve.

And so I remind us all, that even as you work and serve and labor in the love of the Lord, in this place, and in your own places of life and work… May you take refuge in God.  May you return to God’s feet and open your mind and heart to hear God’s words to you.  May you lay down the needs.  May you lay down your worries.  And may you bring it all to Christ’s feet.

 

Our Lord who fed 5000 from two loaves and five fish, can care for you.

Our Lord who made the lame man walk, can care for you.

Our Lord who raised Lazarus from the dead, can care for you.

Our Lord who created the earth and all stars, who formed the planets and the ladybug, can care for you.

 

Let us heed these words of Jesus, spoken to us now, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”

 

 

May we, like Mary, choose the better part.