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“The One God of All”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17
Genesis 21:8-21

 

Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17

Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me,
for I am poor and needy.
Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you;
save your servant who trusts in you.
You are my God; be gracious to me, O Lord,
for to you do I cry all day long.
Gladden the soul of your servant,
for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving,
abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.
Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer;
listen to my cry of supplication.
In the day of my trouble I call on you,
for you will answer me.

There is none like you among the gods, O Lord,
nor are there any works like yours.
All the nations you have made shall come
and bow down before you, O Lord,
and shall glorify your name.
For you are great and do wondrous things;
you alone are God.
But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
Turn to me and be gracious to me;
give your strength to your servant;
save the child of your serving girl.

 

Genesis 21:8-21

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

~~~~~~~~~~

 

I’ve always found this story rather distressing.  In age-old feelings of jealousy, it appears Sarah decides Hagar and her son should go.  It says she didn’t want Ishmael to inherit with her own son Isaac.

In a land of plenty, in this family with no other heirs, Sarah’s jealousy is most disturbing; why can’t she share?  Does she not trust Isaac will have enough?  …Even though we are told that Abraham is a rich man?  Is this a class war, where she doesn’t want her son playing and associating with Abraham’s son by her slave Hagar?  Or could it be anger and resentment, since – as soon as Hagar becomes pregnant with Abraham’s child – we are told Hagar gloats and looks down on Sarah.  After all, Hagar had surpassed Sarah in her apparent “womanhood” with Abraham, or so the culture would have said.  There was (and even still is) a lot of shame wrapped in a woman’s inability to bear children.

 

But even more disturbing:  wasn’t it Sarah’s idea all along that Abraham sleep with Hagar in order that he might have a descendant that way?  And now she wants to undo what she did?  This feels audacious and cold.  And yet, as judgmental as I feel toward Sarah in this moment, what options did a wife have in those days?  Women were valued by their ability to produce heirs, and this was something she could not yet do.  She was nearing a century of life, without the blessing of having her own child.  Perhaps she turned to her servant Hagar, as her way of trying to fulfill her wifely duties.

 

Whatever Sarah’s feelings or her reasons, we hear that Abraham is greatly distressed by Sarah’s wish to send off Ishmael.  So God speaks into this moment and directs Abraham to do as Sarah wishes.

And so, despite his distress, Abraham does what he has done before.  He believes God.  He obeys.  He sends Hagar off with Ishmael and only bread and a skin of water by which to survive.

But God has told Abraham that God will indeed make a nation of Ishmael also.  So not only will Ishmael survive, but it would seem that he will indeed thrive.  He too will become numerous, having many descendants.  And so Abraham obeys.

 

And this is when we look upon the dire situation in which Hagar finds herself and her son – with no more water, and expecting the end for she and her child.  She leaves Ishmael underneath a bush, farther off, so she might not have to witness the death of her child.

But just as God speaks with Abraham when he is distressed of soul, so an angel of God speaks to Hagar in this moment of deepest despair.  The angel tells her not to fear; that God has heard the cries of her son, and that God will actually make a great nation from Ishmael.  Hagar is to go back to her child and hold him fast in her hand.  And when she obeys, as Abraham had done, God opens her eyes and she sees a well.  She goes and refills the empty skin full of fresh water, and she offers this water of new life to her son.

 

Can you imagine the emotional journey Hagar has been on?  Can you imagine being someone’s servant, their slave?  Can you imagine that someone telling you to sleep with her husband?  Can you imagine the fears that must have entered her mind?

Can you imagine the position in which she finds herself?  Truly she appears at the mercy of her masters.  She does what they will.  She sleeps with Sarah’s husband.  She bears his child.  And when tensions grow between she and Sarah and Sarah wants her gone, she is cast out to fend for herself in lands and cultures where not having a tribe means certain death.

 

But this is not the end of Hagar’s story.  God has a plan for Ishmael as well.

Hagar’s story, tragic on so very many levels, does not end with the death of she and her son in the wilderness.

…For God hears,
God speaks,
And God provides.

 

To this woman, used and abused, God speaks of a future for her son that is magnificent and hopeful.

 

Now I must say that I am still very uneasy with this story.

It seems that, as in so much of life, the rich get richer and the poor poorer, the powerful remain strong while the powerless are jerked around and mistreated.

 

But I am also encouraged by this story.

For God does not treat Hagar and Ishmael as disposable, as trash, as pawns.

For apart from Abraham and Sarah, Haagar and Ishmael will prosper.  Their stories intertwine, but her story branches off here in its own direction.

God is with Ishmael, and he becomes strong with the bow.  He lives in the wilderness, and he marries a woman his mother finds for him from her homeland of Egypt.

They survive.

And they prosper. 

 

This is the character of the God we serve.

Imperfect servants of God, Abraham and Sarah,

They are still used by God.

God remembers that they are made of dust.

 

And yet God’s love doesn’t stop with the family of Abraham who he has chosen.

No God’s presence and love follows Hagar and her son Ishmael,

even into the lonely and vulnerable wilderness.

 

God has mercy on Sarah, who could never bear a child – her one main duty as a wife.  And God works in the life of Hagar, providing for she and her son in the darkest place of their lives, that they may one day form a nation of their own.

 

 

It is a common misconception that God’s choosing of Abraham means God does not love everyone else.  But it has always been for the sake of the whole world that God chose Abraham.  It has always been that THROUGH HIM all the families of the earth shall be blessed.  Abraham is blessed TO BE a blessing…to the rest of the world. 

For God’s love doesn’t stop with Abraham.  God’s love can be shown and grown through a servant like Abraham who listens, believes, and follows.  Through his obedience the families of the earth will find blessing.  But God’s love is for the whole creation, the people of every land and place, all those who wander and run themselves ragged in fear, like sheep without a shepherd.  God has mercy on us, despite our sins, and graces us with undeserved favor and blessing.

 

THIS is the God we serve:
The God who speaks to the rich nomad
and the spurned and abused servant girl,
making them both ancestors of great nations.

Despite all our human-divisions of power and vulnerability, gender and opportunity, wealth and poverty, …master and servant,

GOD is God to all.

 

We are alike,
beloved by the Most High God.

Thanks be to God!!

 

 

 

PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE

On this Father’s Day, let us speak aloud the names of those who are and were father figures to us. 

                                                (Psalm 72, excerpts)

Give to your Leaders good judgement, O God, and a sense of what is right.  May they govern your people with justice and do right for those who are powerless.  May the mountains bring peace for the people, and the hills bring forth justice.  May they defend the poor among the people, save the children of those who are needy, and crush the oppressor.  May they endure as long as the sun, like the moon through all generations; like the rains that fall on the early crops, like the showers that water the earth.  May justice flower in their days, and peace till the moon is no more. May they have pity on the week and the powerless; may they save the lives of the poor.  May they redeem them from oppression and violence and regard their blood as precious.  Let grain be abundant through-out the land, and wave on the the tops of the mountains.  Let the crops blossom like Lebanon and the people flourish in the cities like the grass of the fields.

(Iona Abby Worship Book)

Liberator Christ, you came into a holy place and read the sacred word about sight for the blind folk and freedom for prisoners.  Come to this place now.  Read these words to us till our own eyes are opened, our faith is unlocked, and we can see the world as it is, and as it could be; till the yearnings of ordinary people are taken seriously, and the visions of the young are valued, and the potential of the old is released; till you Kingdom is celebrated everywhere, and your church is good news to the poor.

Amen.

“To Be Channels of God’s Goodness”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23

 

Acts 2:42-47

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.


 

Reading this passage from Acts about the apostles and early believers sharing everything they have in common, I am struck anew at how very, very counter-cultural this act is.  One could even say it is subversive.

We buy and sell.  We own and transfer ownership.  We own land.  We build and own property.  And back in Jesus’ day, even women, many servants, enslaved persons, and children were all considered property.  As capitalistic as we are today, there was an even bigger spectrum in Jesus’ day of what and who people thought could be bought and sold, owned, possessed.

Frankly the idea of a person owning another person causes a visceral response in my body.  I find it so very offensive.  Nonetheless, the culture and world to which Jesus came and gave his life saw ownership as a sign of wealth and power, much as we do today.

So when the disciples ask new believers to share everything freely with one another, to sell their possession and give to the poor, to hold nothing back – it is most certainly subversive.  It is a hard ask.  Can you imagine asking that of another person?

 

I cannot.

I truly delight in ownership.  I love owning a car.  I adore owning real estate.  I love the items that I’ve purchased or found and now call my own.  I love the memories.  I love the resourcefulness.  I love being prepared.

And yet the disciples learned a very different way of living from Jesus.  They travelled from place to place, without ownership, without provision, without knowing where their next shelter or meal would come from.  Sometimes they picked wheat and produce from the fields through which they wandered.  And sometimes Jesus asked them to feed people, when they themselves did not have anything on them to offer another.

But Jesus had shown them the power of this way of life.  They’d been challenged to wholly lean on God for their well-being.  When they split up to go and witness to the Kingdom of God in neighboring towns, Jesus had instructed them to go empty-handed.  They were to take nothing but the tunic on their backs.  And they were to rely, wholly, on the generosity of those they met.  Can you imagine?

 

Some in our culture know this way of life.

There are a few who also know not where their next meal will come from or where they will find shelter and rest.  There are some who travel without provision, wholly reliant on those around them to survive.  Many hustle in their own way – trying to sell goods or services to make a buck.  And others beg on street corners, traffic islands, and even grocery store parking lots.

We tend to look unfavorably on these folks.

They are not being responsible, we say.  They are mooching off the rest of us.  We are paying for their laziness, we feel.

We don’t know what to do when we see them.  Are they truly in need?  Are they a victim?  Are they victimizing me?  What will they use my gift for?  Will they use it for life-crushing substances?  Will they use it for food?  Will they use it wisely?

Our questions are left unanswered, as we each try to make up our own minds.  And this discomfort weighs on us, especially as we pass by those we choose not to help.  Are we doing the right thing??

 

And though these wanderers and sojourners differ in some ways from Jesus’ disciples, they also have enough similarity, that it behooves us to pay attention.

 

In America we have some exposure as well to a culture that did not believe in land ownership:  the Native Americans.  The earth and all its fullness is seen as a gift – not to be grasped, but to be received with gratitude and respect.  The earth and all its fullness is not for us to use and squander however we choose.  Rather, we are given its keeping for a little while, and it is our great and holy responsibility to keep it thriving for our children and our children’s children.

Frankly, this view of creation sounds far more in keeping with Christ’s manner of living than our own.  And sometimes, the manner of living of the homeless and wanderers among us, seems much more in keeping with Jesus’ manner of living.  Jesus was, after all, homeless.  He did not have money.  He was not beholden to the systems and powers that be.  He was not part of the economic engine, the machine.  So in this way, he was uniquely free, a freedom many of our homeless brothers and sisters have also known.

 

So where does this leave us?

I’d like to think that our society is just what Jesus would have designed, but I cannot imagine that is true.  I appreciate capitalism.  I love home and land ownership, but this is not what we see in Jesus’ own life, and as uncomfortable as it makes me, I believe you and I are responsible to God for how we life, be it for good or for ill.

So whether we own or use land, whether we own or use resources, whether we buy or borrow goods and services, we are responsible.  And our actions reflect, in some way, our levels of trust, in the good shepherd, with whom “I shall not want.”

 

We give lip service in the church to trusting God.  We give lip service to trusting God with our money, our goods, our lives.  But when it comes down to it, our actions most accurately reflect our trust. 

Do our gifts of money, answer God’s call on our finances?  Have we taken the time to be still and listen for God’s still, small voice speaking over what we possess?  Do we even dare open up ourselves to such a vulnerable position of listening??

How much treasure do we store up for ourselves?  When do we have enough?
How much toilet paper do we store up?  When do we “have enough?”
Isn’t it all relative?
Isn’t it all so easy to rationalize?

 

I do not think there is a one-size-fits-all answer to any of this.  I dare not venture to prescribe how much you should own or give.  And I think God’s answers and invitations to each of us differ widely. 

 

And so, I invite you, to be still before our God, and to listen. 

 

What does God bring to mind?
Who does God bring to mind?
Is there someone in need nearby, whom you can help?
Do you have resources you’ve outgrown that would tremendously bless someone else?

This process is for you and you alone.   Each person, each family, each couple is responsible for how life is lived, what resources are used, what is shared, and whether or not we obeyed God’s private instruction in our lives.

 

The early believers shared all they had in common.  They sold what they had and gave it to the poor.  They shared, wherever there was need.

THIS my friends, is the Kindom of God.
THIS is the radical way of living Christ calls us to.

We are to place our trust in Christ alone, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

 

And I am moved to read this now, because so many of us have been acting more like this of late.  Food Lion issued 1,500 $20 gift cards for school children in impoverished neighborhoods in this community.  Jo-ann’s has been giving out mask-making supplies free to anyone who will make them.  Reservoir Distillery here in Richmond is giving away hand sanitizer every weekday – turning their tasting room into a distribution center.  Celebrities are paying rents for entire low-income neighborhoods.  One is even paying for virtual therapy.  Another has started his own boot-leg broadcast called, “SGN” – Some Good News, and he’s using it to spread stories of hope and courage to lift of the community.

You have made masks upon masks for one another.  You have labored long over financial records and payroll sheets – to find and solicit ways to continue employing those workers who have served in our midst for so very long.  You’ve written cards and letters to one another, especially our home-bound members and friends.  Money for projects and paychecks has been provided, mysteriously, anonymously.  You have rallied to put up and fill a new Little Pantry on our church grounds, to supply the community in this needful time.  When various ones among us have been in a bind, you have responded with help, in time.  When folks call our office asking help to pay a bill, you fund an account that pays portions of these bills.  When folks among us need a ride to appointments, you have shown up.

 

Just as the Israelites long ago were not blessed for themselves alone, WE are not blessed for ourselves alone.  We are called to be Christ’s hands and feet in this world – to be CHANNELS of God’s goodness – of grace and love, abundance and provision, comfort and care.  We are called to shepherd one another, as our God has shepherded us – to love and comfort one another as our God has loved and comforted us.

We are blessed in order to BE a BLESSING. 

 

So as we prepare to leave this gathering,
I invite you,
to covenant
– with yourself and with God –
to set aside a holy moment,
this day,
to listen to your God.

Generous and merciful God,
how are you calling us to be faithful,
here and now,
in this time.
Speak, in ways we can hear.

And by your grace, may we most surely be, your faithful disciples.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Our Beloved Saints”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Proverbs 27:17
Hebrews 12:1-3

Proverbs 27:17

Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another.

Hebrews 12:1-3

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,  looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.

 


 

My grandfather.  My mother’s father.  He was a Presbyterian Minister out in Texas where they lived.  When he was ordained, his presbytery was so small that he was elected to serve as Presbytery Executive in the same meeting, so he signed his own ordination papers!

He liked to tell stories of his ministry – how he’d (or more accurately God had) held together a church deeply divided by listening to everyone each Sunday after church.  I appreciated these stories.  They told me his values.  They told me that it was more important to be in relationship with one another – sharpened as iron sharpens iron – than to be estranged and separated.

In this way my grandfather deeply shaped my faith development.

 

I also learned from his mistakes.  He was a passionate man, and not being able to discipline his grandchildren made him feel totally disempowered.  So what do we so often do when we feel powerless?  Quite often we unearth other more malignant tactics.   So most of us grandchildren have haunting memories of him taking us off to some hallway, kneeling to our level and hitting his head repeatedly in front of us saying, “Since I cannot spank you, I will spank myself.”  This was his way of trying to deter us from doing things he disagreed with.  Talk about psychologically twisted, this definitely qualified!

But after my grandmother passed away during my 7th grade year in school, my grandfather changed.  She had been the tender and gentle one.  He had been the hard one.  But after she was gone, he softened.  He stopped hitting his head.  He started being tender with us and kind.  He spent more time with us, telling stories.  And finally unbound by fear, we could enjoy him and get to know him.

 

Several years later, I would attend my church summer camp and find that I enjoyed learning and teaching about God, more than any other thing.  I would deliver my very first sermon, drawing from the imagery of Pachelbel’s Cannon.  And members of the church who had nurtured me from the time I was born were approaching me to say they could hear God’s Word in my sermon and hoped I would consider seminary.

Still new to any critical study of the Bible, I had many questions – such as whether or not women should be in ministry.  And I questioned myself, as I was introverted, and I didn’t think that a very suitable quality for a minister.

But like Mary – after giving birth to Jesus and receiving the Shepherd visitors – I treasured these things in my heart and began to ask the questions of my own calling in life.   I began the long road of scripture study and interpretation.

And as my own calling to ministry began to emerge, I came back to my grandfather, who, a product of his time, had always thought it wrong for women to be ministers.  I half-expected him to shame me for this sense of call, but he surprised me.  Instead he told me that he’d been listening to more and more women preach and that he was hearing God speak through them.  They were anointed.  And if God’s Spirit was speaking through them, who was he to say they couldn’t or shouldn’t be ministers.

And in this, my grandfather gave me the greatest example of faith:  the example of a passionate but humble, living, and growing faith.   With a lifetime full of experiences in the world and in the church, he had every reason to say, “this is not the way that things should be done.”  His contemporaries would have judged me in that vulnerable place where I was considering my call.  But instead, he stayed in a position of openness to the Spirit of God.

And when the time came for him to start considering the fate of his worldly possessions, he took me into his small library room – filled on every wall with books from top to bottom – and gave me the gift to his entire library.

 

This man who had been passionately against women in ministry – keeping my grandmother down, who had longed for him to teach her, and forbidding her from speaking on his behalf at church – this man was blessing my calling to ministry in his final years.

And he started downloading all his experiences into me – so that I would learn from him.

He once said, and it was so funny and moving that I wrote it down, “This does not deny you the right to investigate new visions.  Go to it!  Your old grandpa may roll over in his grave by them, but so what!?”

 

I loved that.

He recognized that God was still moving and working and revealing Godself in new ways.  He recognized that he would never have the corner on the truth.  He trusted the Mystery beyond himself.

And this example has been his greatest gift to me.

 

Whatever our paths and families, we ARE indeed surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.  In the chapter before these verses from Hebrews, the writer reviews all the great faith figures.  He is reminding us that we are not alone in this journeyIt is a hard journey, but we are in good company!  The Bible is full of story after story of our ancestors in the faith – who got things beautifully right and terribly wrong sometimes, and yet who were used by God.

We have them, and we have Christ!

We are not alone.  And we can learn from their experiences – both what TO do and what NOT to do.  God has given us a great gift through their lives.

This gift is not meant to call us back to a time that no longer exists.  It is not meant to keep us in a place of nostalgia.  No, the writer of Hebrews reasons that because we are surrounded by this great company of saints who’ve gone before, we run with perseverance.  We press into the living of these days, of our lives, of our journeys of faith – taking encouragement from these saints and direction from Christ, the pioneer and perfector of our faith!

We look back, in order to move more faithfully forward. 

 

And so today, we take this time to remember those in ours and other people’s lives who have strengthened and blessed us on our journeys, and we take time to give thanks for them!

In just a moment I will invite you to walk around the room (as you feel led), reading the stories of these saints, and giving thanks to God in your hearts.

When the music comes to a close, I will invite you to take a stand or a seat near the write ups that speak to you.  And we will come before God in prayer together – giving thanks for those who have shaped our lives.  During that prayer, we will go around the room, in order, speaking out the names of all these saints.

So I invite you now to spend time in holy listening, silently walking and reading, or seated as you like, meditating on these saints who have blessed our lives.  And after about 4-5 minutes, I will call us back together for a prayer and speaking of the names.

“Thy Kingdom Come”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Luke 6:20-23
James 2:1-10

Luke 6:20-23

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

James 2:1-10

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.  For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.

For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.  So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.  For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

 


 

In this chapter of the Book of James, the author is calling out the human behavior of favoritism.  His rationale goes something like this:  in God’s Kingdom the poor are rich in faith and will be heirs of the Kingdom, so why do you treat badly, those who God blesses?

We all know how this world works.  It seems the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  And as much as we may wish to believe our lot in life is purely built on hard work or laziness, the reality is that many more factors are at play than we have control over.  There are the things we control – like how we respond to situations and opportunities and the lack of opportunity.  And there are things we do not control – like societal bias, our parent’s means, …and luck.

Certainly hard work is important.  The Bible encourages us to work hard and to live into our potential, making the most of whatever we have.  But the reality is that while each of us is beloved by the King of Heaven and earth, our means and resources, skills and abilities, network and connections are very much different from one another.  In the parable of the talents, not all the servants are given the same amount.  And in life, we are all differently equipped – in intellect, in common sense, in wisdom, in physical ability, and so on.  So in life, as in the parable, we are encouraged to maximize our potential, making the best possible concoction out of the ingredients at our disposal.

Some have a strong work ethic.  Some do not.  Some head their parent’s wisdom, while others do not.  Some have parents who are active and involved, while others do not.

But in all this, we cannot deny luck or perhaps grace.  We cannot deny that some things happen – both good and bad – without their being earned.

 

And so when we have the opportunity to rub shoulders with the elite, by all means, we jump at the opportunity.  We hope their luck and network will rub off on and convey to us.  We fantasize that perhaps they’ll find us as charming as we do 😊 and write us into their financial futures.  As absurd as all this sounds when we say it out loud, we still chase after these illusions – hoping to be that lucky one.  And we tend to roll out the red carpet – removing obstacles, cutting corners, bending process – just to be close to those who are rich.

And this stands in stark contrast to how we treat the have-nots in our lives.  Far from rolling out the red carpet, we most often avert our gaze and hope for as little-to-no contact as possible.  Perhaps we’ve seen so many like them before.  Perhaps because you’ve opened yourself to someone in need before and been burned, burned out, or abused.  Perhaps because you’re on a schedule and have no margin for anything extra.  Perhaps because you’re on a budget and have no margin for anything extra.  Perhaps because you’re overwhelmed by the enormity of the need and the inadequacy of your power and means…

We have our reasons, do we not?

But most of us have learned in life to favor the rich and ignore the poor.

James is calling out this behavior challenging it by God’s behavior.  Far from ignoring or pushing aside those in poverty, Jesus attends to them, heals them, says that they are blessed, rich in faith, and heirs of the Kingdom of God.  Those who the world scorns and despises, those who the world has judged and labeled, those outcast are the very ones Jesus blesses.

And James is holding these believers accountable – for living according to God’s Kingdom instead of the Kingdoms of this world.

 

There is a gentleman who used to stand at the corner of Brook and Laburnum.  You could tell he had weathered a lot.  Missing teeth, uneven hair, scraggly beard.  You knew he’d been on the street for quite some time.  But he always smiled, greeting folks with a blessing.  And he wrote out a blessing.  In addition to his sign asking for help, he wrote another sign, often hanging it on his bicycle parked nearby, that read, “Smile, it’s not that bad.”

This gentleman mesmerized me.  How could he, of all people, say, “Smile, it’s not that bad.”  Coming from him, I knew it had truth.  Coming from him, I could take it and receive it.  Coming from him, it wasn’t trite or diminishing of my pain.  Coming from him, I found it inspiring.

But no day was it more inspiring that when I found myself in the extended misery that was bed bugs.  I was worn out by this mystery bug that even the exterminators knew very little about.  Almost eradicated for many years, knowledge of bed bugs had been lost and very little facts could be found over the internet about their behaviors.  How could I overcome a tiny bug I didn’t understand?  And the exterminator kept changing the story – first saying all I had to do was launder and bag everything fabric in my home and pull everything out 4 feet from the walls, and then showing up the day of – only to reveal that I had to remain in this limbo for another 2 weeks, after which they would likely treat again….  I thought I was going to lose it.  It was like moving all over again.  It would be a total of 6 weeks, before my space would be bed bug free – the whole time in which I was living out of bags & lying in bed as bait night after night.  It felt like hell – a unique type of hell that I care never to repeat.

And one day, in the throws of my ordeal, I passed this gentleman on the side of the street.  And his sign, “Smile, it’s not that bad” called me to gratitude, out of the depths of my pain and anger and self pity.  It called me to give thanks for my home.  It called me to give thanks that I had clothes & bed & things to have to clean and bag up.  The words on his sign were still true.  And I just balled and balled as I passed him that day.

He had given me a gift.  He was teaching me what faith and gratitude were like.

 

Later that year, someone interviewed him for the local free paper.  His name is John.  At that time, he had been on the street for four years, maybe more.  But it hadn’t always been that way.  Back in the seventies, he was in college, and he majored in computer programming and minored in accounting.  His future gleamed bright.  There was money to be made.  He worked for a bookkeeping and tax firm, and he was doing well.

After eight years, the firm was sold to a conglomerate and John panicked.  He took out an unauthorized loan, sure that he would pay it back, but he was unable to before the auditors caught up with him.  It ruined everything.  His lawyer told him, “If you had the money, you could walk away from this,” but he didn’t.  So he went to jail.  He was released on a suspended sentence, which meant that any small infraction would land him back in jail.  So after some time he was caught speeding, which landed him back in jail.  Each time they’d say it was just a few months, but it wasn’t just that.  It was just enough time to loose his house, loose his car, loose his job…over and over again.  The hardest part was working his way back from all that again and again, only to loose it ALL, all over again, over minor infractions.

But John didn’t give up.  He relocated to another city.  He started over.  Again.  He steered clear of the financial sector and was doing well.  But he was summoned back to Richmond when his Aunt and Uncle could no longer care for themselves.  So he threw himself into their care.  He lived off the savings he had rebuilt.  But both of them passed away, and when they did, relatives came out of the woodwork and claimed everything that was theirs, leaving John on the curb, with two plastic bags that were his things.

He was homeless.

He says he had no idea that returning to Richmond would leave him homeless.  But it did, and now he has that stigma, like a leper.  He feels no one wants to hire him – like he has a disease that will rub off or a giant X on his chest.  Folks look at him as cheap labor, and he’s happy to do anything.   Usually by the time he shows up on the corner to beg, he’s already worked a job.  Folks will have him bike out to their houses, out in the suburbs, and its not uncommon for him to work 5 hours and get paid 20 bucks.  It can be incredibly discouraging.

 

It was winter when this reporter interviewed John, and they talked about the cold.  John survived by sleeping a work shed, lighting a kerosene heater in the center and sitting up all night.  He explained that in winter, it was not safe to lie down.  Lying down would mean death.  And so that was how he managed.  And the birds had become his companions.  He feeds the birds and walks with them, and he chases away the cats.  And the birds are his security, because whenever anyone is coming, they make noise and shake the tree limbs.   About those birds, he says, “It may sound crazy, but I talk to those birds.  And they listen.”

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you[d] on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

 

Sisters and Brothers,

We are called to more than what can be touched and seen;

We are called to bring in the Kingdom of Heaven,

To live as God’s people that God’s Kingdom may come on earth, as it is in heaven.

 

May God give us Christ’s eyes to see our neighbors,

Christ’s humility to know our neighbors,

Christ’s wisdom to see the truth,

Christ’s power to say, “No more.”,

Christ’s love to welcome all,

Christ’s courage to face the fury of this world and follow wherever our Lord leads.