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“Gratitude – Bringing Truth into Focus”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Psalm 78:1-16
Exodus 17:1-7

 

Psalm 78:1-16

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known,
that our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their children;
we will tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
and the wonders that he has done.

He established a decree in Jacob,
and appointed a law in Israel,
which he commanded our ancestors
to teach to their children;
that the next generation might know them,
the children yet unborn,
and rise up and tell them to their children,
so that they should set their hope in God,
and not forget the works of God,
but keep his commandments;
and that they should not be like their ancestors,
a stubborn and rebellious generation,
a generation whose heart was not steadfast,
whose spirit was not faithful to God.

The Ephraimites, armed with[a] the bow,
turned back on the day of battle.
They did not keep God’s covenant,
but refused to walk according to his law.
They forgot what he had done,
and the miracles that he had shown them.
In the sight of their ancestors he worked marvels
in the land of Egypt, in the fields of Zoan.
He divided the sea and let them pass through it,
and made the waters stand like a heap.
In the daytime he led them with a cloud,
and all night long with a fiery light.
He split rocks open in the wilderness,
and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep.
He made streams come out of the rock,
and caused waters to flow down like rivers.

 

Exodus 17:1-7

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

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

 

 

We have been following the story of the Israelites, from Jacob to Moses this summer, and it is ever so striking how faithless the people, these chosen ones, God’s people, seem to be.  Is it any wonder they also experience God’s wrath – as they, who have been blessed so abundantly, stray so very far from God’s ways and God’s heart?!

Finally, under Moses’ leadership, the nation has been liberated from the heavy hand of Egypt, but despite having witnessed God’s judgement on Egypt in sign and wonder and heart-break; despite having narrowly escaped the full military power of Egypt, crossing the very Red Sea on foot, while the waters ceased their flow on both sides of them; despite receiving manna in the morning and quail in the evening the people still doubt God.  The people still complain.  The people still fear for their well-being.  They fear they will not have…food and pleasure and provision.

Can you believe it? 
Would you be changed if you’d walked through a corridor of water, held back by the hand of God, saving your life in the nick of time?
Would you be changed if you were rescued out of slavery?!

It is easy to point the finger.

 

And yet,…
What about you?
What about me?

 

As for myself, I was blessed to be raised in a family of God-fearing parents.  I was sheltered from many a storm and heartache because of that.

And each summer, though my parents could not afford anything extra, my church gave me and each of my siblings scholarships to attend the area Presbyterian Camp, where I came alive!  It was there in my final summer, that I felt God’s call to ministry.

And most every summer my church or my family would make their way to Montreat Conference Center, in the mountains of North Carolina.  There we’d rock hop, explore old micah mines, hike, sing, and wade in the cold crisp mountain stream.  The camping option there always gave us a way in, even though the hotel was out of reach.  And to this day, Montreat is where my heart feels home.

When my parents split up and my heart felt it was splitting in two, my youth minister showed me great love, calling me every single morning, before school, to pray with me.  She knew I needed the support.  And she led us in Bible Study, which I was really finding delicious, for the first time.  She taught us that it wasn’t about religion at all but about relationship, a relationship with God, and that made all the difference.

And I was blessed to attend Presbyterian College, where I got to learn from amazing professors in my fields, of religion, philosophy, and music.  There, I got to ask all the hard questions, put my faith on the line, come to end of myself, and find that God was still the most real thing in all the world to me.

A year later I got to attend Union Presbyterian Seminary and explore my faith further – hoping to find all the answers but rather uncovering more and more questions.  Faith would have to grow or fade.  And again I would have the chance to face the demons in our spiritual closets, to face difficult scripture passages, and to continue on my slow journey of trusting God in the process of my life.

And though I’d felt called to ministry at 16, I couldn’t see the path forward at the time.  I was deeply shy, introspective, introverted, soft-spoken.  I couldn’t see how I could be used by God for such work.  I thought being gregarious and funny, outgoing and extraverted were all necessary for the job.  But I trusted that if God called me, God would equip me.  And twenty years from the time of my calling, I was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) at Camp Hanover.  Despite many doubts, much time, unforeseen obstacles, and test after test after examination, God fulfilled this call in my life.  What a tremendous gift!

 

Now, most often when I recall my childhood, I will recall how I felt bullied most all the time.  I recall being excluded by church “friends” from events and conversation.  I recall being looked down on as a scrawny kid, the slowest in my age group on swim team.  I recall playing softball and being sometimes lovingly and sometimes meanly mocked for my “positive” way of encouraging each player up at bat.

I recall how my family never had new things.  We never had new school supplies or clothes.  We frequently window shopped – which meant looking and not buying.  And if we did buy, it was at the discount Sears store, but most often we merely window shopped,…there.  I recall our stopping at the day-old bakery to buy almost-gone goodies – where you were in a race with time to eat it before it molded.  I still can recall the taste of moldy powdered doughnuts!  I recall the way my Mom made a little last a long, long way  – cutting mold off cheese, making milk from powder, and eating week-old leftovers.

I recall my hatred of sixth grade when I was bused to a magnet school for music – two hours there, two hours back – only to be a magnet for other’s abuse.  I recall how the Assistant Principal at my middle school called me into her office one day to ask if I was okay.  I was shocked that she could see how very depressed I was.  Ostracized by my peers, I had learned to make friends with the friend-less, but I felt very alone.

And I can go on and on.

 

These experiences of pain and suffering make their indelible mark, do they not? 

And yet, through-out all the food-stretching, I saw my mom make jam & the best cookies on the planet.  We enjoyed dollar movies at the discount movie theater and my Mom would carry in all kinds of snacks for us to enjoy – smuggled in, in a baby diaper bag (long after diapers were a things of the past!).

Through-out all the school isolation, I did know friendship.  I had a best friend in 1st grade, till she moved away.  I had a best friend in 2nd and 3rd, until a new student convinced her that it was not okay for her, a black girl, to hang with me, a white girl.  And in late middle school, a new girl transferred to the school who was already “pre-engaged” to a high schooler.  It seemed she had done all the forbidden things, as she was from the countryside where it seemed folks had nothing else to do but drink and make out.  So she started out at our school as a pariah, but she became my friend.  And in high school, I finally made the best friend I’d ever had:  Jane Trexler.  She lived in my neighborhood & was the opposite of me.  I was invisible.  She was popular.  I was shy.  She was student body president.  I was skin and bones.  She looked lovely and mature.  And we walked – walked around our neighborhood – we shared life and faith and friendship.

I did find my way. 

I knew friendship. 

I had food to eat. 

I had shelter. 

 

I was blessed. 

 

What about you?
When you look back, what do you recall?

 

It is easiest to recall the pain.  It is easiest to recall the injustice, the unfairness, the times we’ve felt slighted and hurt.  That is natural.

 

But do we also recall the times we are blown away by God – like when my youth minister called me every morning at 6:30 am, just to pray with me?

Do we recall when we are surprised by God – like when my family went to the state fair and a church friend happened to show up, giving us free tickets?!

Do we recall when God rescues us from the disasters that the befall us – like when the Presbyterian Board of Pensions helped me pay unexpected medical bills?

Do we recall when God rescues us from the disasters we may bring on ourselves – like when God woke me up from my slumber and led me out of a marriage where I endured continual emotional abuse and was slowly dying to my true self?

 

Our God is alive.
Our God is moving.
God is showing up for each of us, in ways big and small.

But if we do not consciously REMEMBER this stories, TELL these stories, RECALL these stories…we forget.  We become lost at sea – terrified by the next dark cloud up ahead.

THESE moments of God’s mighty provision, God’s mighty rescue, God’s mighty presence and power are touchstones – they are grounding, they are re-orienting, they put things into perspective, they bring the truth into focus.

 

If I only focus on the bad things I have endured, I have a big bone to pick with God.  WHY did I have to endure such bullying, such ostracizing, such loneliness?  WHY did I have to endure scarcity and want?  WHY did I have to go through the breaking up of my family?

BUT when I choose to remember God’s acts through-out my life, I know God is with me.  God’s hands are present – in comfort, in manna and quail, in prayer, in friendship, in growth, in meaning, in calling, in overcoming, in drawing me near!  When I choose to remember God’s acts through-out my life, I see how very blessed I am.  I see that God had the past, and that I can trust God for whatever may lie ahead. 

 

REMEMBERING grounds us.
REMEMBERING sheds light on the truth.
REMEMBERING helps us not loose our way, through the stormy seas of life.

 

Like the Israelites, we too have been mightily blessed, mightily rescued, mightily known, mightily loved and called.  But just like the Israelites, unless we choose to recall God’s mighty acts, we too become ungrateful, entitled, fearful, demanding,…lost.

 

We must choose remembrance.

We must choose to share.

We must choose to recall.

 

That’s what these gratitude stories have been about.  For it is in building a spiritual practice of gratitude, that we remember and give thanks.  And these are the stories that remind us who we are and whose we are. 

 

May we be a people,
Chosen and beloved
Who remember and share,
The mighty acts of God.

 

 

 

 

 

“The Love of God Knows No Bounds”

1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

 

1 Peter 2:2-10

Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture:
“See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe,
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the very head of the corner,”
and
“A stone that makes them stumble,
and a rock that makes them fall.”
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.

 

John 14:1-14

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.


 

This scripture passage is so very packed with beauty and power that I scarcely know where to start.  Any one of Jesus’ words, recorded here in John, are enough for a hearty spiritual meal.

I think growing up, I saw Jesus’ words about being “the way, the truth, and the life” as saying that only Christians would be saved.  At least that was how the verse had been interpreted in the world in which I grew up.  But with growth in God, I find that interpretation to lack depth and to smell of religious guilt-tripping and manipulation.

I imagine there are a great many, who have over the years, proclaimed that very message in all sincerity of heart.  But I have not found God to be that one-dimensional.  God opens the mouth of a donkey to speak aloud in one Old Testament story.  God speaks to and through a Roman centurion, a Tax Collector, a Samaritan woman, and a Canaanite woman begging on behalf of her daughter.

Though Jesus tells this Canaanite woman that he has been sent only to the lost sheep of Israel, his action shows us otherwise.  For although he spends his time ministering to the lost ones of Israel, he does not stop at healing and teaching and rescuing only them.  He is life, and wherever he goes, with whomever he meets, he shares life. 

Actually none of those to whom Christ ministers in his lifetime would have been considered Christian – not even the Israelites, as they were Jewish.  But even people of other backgrounds and religions are finding mercy and healing and truth in Christ.

God’s saving work in Christ Jesus is complete and effectual.  There is no need to add to it.  God has made a way for all to come into God’s presence, regardless of their religious background and upbringing.

And from there, we are left with this good gift of forgiveness and adoption into the family of God.  And all have the choice to receive it with thanksgiving or to reject it and remain in sin.  Being Christian is not pre-requisite for salvation.  Christianity is humankind’s creation.  It is our religious response to what we have known and witness to from the life and sacrifice of Christ Jesus, our Lord.

Christianity can be very good.  It is in fact quite good, when we do as Christ did and love as Christ loved, following the lead and living in the power of the Holy Spirit.  But it is important to distinguish between God’s acts and our human acts.  Becoming a Christian isn’t the magic ticket.  The work has already been done by Christ alone.  We have only to receive it.

God saved. 

We proclaim God’s salvation!

We do this within the religion of Christianity.  And the Spirit of God is moving over the whole earth, in lands far and near, to seek out and save the lost.  It is not a human-made religion that saves, but the effectual work of Christ that saves. 

 

Christ is indeed the way, the truth, and the life.

On our own, no one of us will ever been holy enough,
Pure enough,
Sinless enough,
Righteous enough.

 

None.

It is only by the saving act of Christ Jesus, making a way for us to come into God’s presence in the freedom and joy of forgiveness, that any of us may call God’s house our home, that any of us may be called the Children of God.

Christ is indeed the way.

But please do not mistake the way for being Christianity, per se.
Christ, and Christ alone, is the way.
Nothing that humankind can create or do, could ever make a way. 
And that is the very point.

That is precisely why Christ came.
Only God’s own act could ever bridge the deep divide.
And God has done it!!!

 

This message is not for us alone.
This message is for the whole world!
For whomever believes and receives God’s good gift, God has given the Spirit

We do not need to control it.  We do not need to try to box and package it, marketing it.  But Christ does call us to spread this good news – the news that God has done it! – to peoples far and wide.

And WE need to be careful not to place our own obstacles in the paths of those who would come to believe.

Just as Paul discouraged the Jews from requiring that the Gentiles be circumcised in order to be welcome at the table of God, so we must resist the urge for qualifying who is in and who is out, according to our own human-made standards – placing more pre-requisites before God’s good gift of life.  Doing so, it NOT the work of God.

It is not.

 

Only God knows who has received the good gift of grace and forgiveness offered us in Christ Jesus.  Even among self-reported Christians, many have reverted to a works-based system of acceptance.  But here in this scripture, we read that those who believe will do the works of God, and even greater works than Christ himself, as Christ is now with the God the Father, granting whatever we ask, in Christ’s name.  It’s almost unbelievable.  (Or is it just unbelievable?).  Scripture says we will know God’s children by their works (notice: works, not words), and not works done to earn God’s love and acceptance, but rather works that are an overflowing of the gifts of grace and forgiveness that our God has freely bestowed upon us!

 

So may we suspend our judgements and divisions.
These divisions of people are human-made.
But Christ came in order that ALL might be saved and come to knowledge of the truth.

ALL.

 

So may we be like Christ, proclaiming the good news that God has done it!  God has made a way!  And that we are called to believe and to receive God’s good gift to us!!

Let us witness to Christ Jesus, and how we have come to know God through the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.  Let us tell of the good works of the people of God.  Let us be the hands of feet of God in this world, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

And may we always remember that God is bigger than our boundaries.
God is reaching beyond the confines of our human-made groups, in order to reach all.
And everyone who is led by the Spirit of God, is a child of God.
When we cry “Abba, Father” it is that Spirit, bearing witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God.

 

God, the Shepherd of our souls, has found us, while we were lost and still far off.
God has called us by name, adopting us into the family of God.
Christ has called us friends, making us disciples.

Near and far, similar and different, from every land and race, God has raised up descendants of Abraham.  Where we had divided one another by land and nation, race and culture, language and tradition, religion and ritual,…

God has made us one people:  God’s people. 

 

May we follow suit.

 

 

“Transformed and Ever Transforming”

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

Acts 9:1-20

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

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

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

Isaiah 58:1-12 

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

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

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

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

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

The people say one thing, yet do another.

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

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

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

God SEES RIGHT THROUGH these pious religious acts.

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

But their hearts and their lives betray them before God.

And God wants no part of it!

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

We are to leave DIFFERENT than when we came.

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

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

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

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

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

John Newton composed the beloved hymn Amazing Grace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet he did follow.

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

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

And yet he turns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With the Psalmist, may we too pray:

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

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

May it be so.

“Answering the Call”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Jonah 1:1-3, 15-17; 2:1,10; and 3:1-5,10
Psalm 139:7-12, 16b-18

Jonah 1:1-3, 15-17; 2:1,10; and 3:1-5, 10

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up.

So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its
raging. Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish.
Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, thatgreat city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a threedays’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Fortydays more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Psalm 139:7-12, 16b-18

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.

Jonah… I love this guy. I love this guy because I see us in him.

As many of us have longed for, God openly speaks with Jonah. I don’t know if it was an audiblevoice of God or a strong stirring of his heart. I don’t know if he heard it in the silence or thenoise. But what we know is that God spoke and Jonah heard.

And Jonah was faced with a choice.

Now unlike so many of us who have grown up in church – knowing the right answers and wanting to appear holy, while all the while secreting wanting to do things in our own way – it does not appear Jonah has or pays any mind to others. There is no audience in this story, judging and weighing Jonah’s choices.

No, Jonah is a free man.

And with that freedom, that many of us may only feel in the dark or away from prying eyes, Jonah chooses to ditch the call of God and get as far from God as possible.

Unfiltered. Unrestrained. He intentionally and openly walks away from the call of God. In fact,walking wasn’t enough, he sought a faster means. He purchased a ticket and boarded a boat bound in the precise opposite direction of God’s call to him – seeking, scripture says, to go away from the presence of God.

Now this is gutsy stuff.
You can’t deny Jonah that.
He hears from the God of the universe and says no, as he runs in the opposite direction.

Gutsy or foolish, perhaps. But one needn’t doubt where Jonah stands. He steps on theopposite side of what God is doing, clearly and decisively.

What about you?

Can you recall moments when you’ve felt God calling you to do or say something? Can yourecall a time when you heard God directing you in the way you should go?

What did you do?
Did you WANT to do what you felt God directing you to do?
How did you feel?
Were you glad to sense direction from God?
Did you joyfully follow God’s leading?
Did you turn up the noise and try to tune God out? Did you start running in the opposite-most direction?

Jonah was not the first and was certainly not the last to decide that HIS way was better thanGod’s way – that God’s call just wasn’t for him – that he wanted to get as far away from God’scalling as possible.

With hearing comes responsibility. With knowing come accountability.

And we are a people who have heard. We are a people who have experienced the love andmight and power of God. We are a people who have received the stories of God’s fiery justice and unfailing love. We have been entrusted with the stories. We have met God in oneanother. We have experienced God’s love calling to us in the darkest hour, speaking hope intoour despair, light into our darkness.

I suspect many of you have heard God calling, in a myriad of ways, for much of your lives –though perhaps you may not have called it God at the time. You may have experienced it to be a lingering thought, a sense of importance, a nagging idea. You have felt compelled to act or to speak. You may have felt your truth burning in your chest, ready to explode if you didn’t give itvoice or feet or wings.

God speaks to us in so many different ways. For Elijah it was in the silence, after the earthquake, storm, and fire. For Moses, it was through the burning bush. For Balam, a character in one of those obscure, surprising Old Testatment stories, it was through his own donkey. And for Jonah, God makes Godself clear through the storm at sea and then in the belly of the large fish.

God speaks in a number of ways.

At first it seems God speaks to Jonah quite plainly. But as Jonah runs and turns away from God,God’s message and discipline get more and more creative. And this is the thing about God –God knows exactly how to speak with each one of us – unique and particular and peculiar as we are. God knows how to get across the message.

So when the tempest picked up and the sea came alive, threatening to swallow up all on board that ship to Tarshish, Jonah knew. He knew it was because of him. He recognized the consequence of his choice and how it was threatening all those around him.

And he makes a choice, in that moment, to take responsibility for his choice, to confess his running from God, and to be thrown overboard that all the others might be saved.

Interestingly enough, it seems, they may have been saved in more than one way, as scripture says this incident caused them to fear God and pay their vows to God.

So here,…even in this brazen act of self-determined disobedience and the severe consequence that followed, God was turning it all into something good…

And then there’s the big fish.

At this moment I confess my mind immediately jumps to finding Nemo. My son was little when Finding Nemo came out, and I watched that movie over and over and over again!

Nemo is the story of a young clown fish and his father Marlin. The gist of the story is that Nemo, in a self-defining act of rebellion against his Father, ventures into dangerous waters on adare from his friends. This one act leads to his Father’s greatest fears being realized, as his sonis discovered by divers and scooped up to become someone’s new pet fish. The Father races after his son, but he’s no match for a motor boat, and soon he’s left swimming fast after avanishing trail, with no hope of ever finding his son.

It’s in this moment that he literally runs into an angel fish Dory who is eager and willing to help but suffers from short-term memory loss. An unlikely pair, they travel together, venturing far beyond the safety of Marlin’s reef, in search of his son Nemo, using only a Sydney Australian street address to guide them (in the ocean!).

At one point in the film, they’ve just come off the East Australian current and have beendumped in what appears to be no-mans-land. With no fish or vegetation in sight, all directions look the same, and they find themselves swimming in circles, lost in a haze of murky water for what seems like hours. Their differences take center stage at this point, and despairing of ever finding his son, Marlin begins laying into Dory, laying on the criticisms, … just as many of ushave been found to do with the very ones walking beside us in our lowest moments…

That’s when they spot a large shadow in the distance. It moves, and seems to come and go.They suspect it to be a whale, so Dory confidently breaks into her best “whale voice” and triesto communicate that they need help getting to Sydney. Marlin, highly doubting Dory’s whalecommunication abilities and fully convinced that Dory is only make things worse for them, piles even higher his criticisms and complaints, just before a school of quail breeze past them, saying,“Run away! Run away!” Peicing together than whales eat quail, it dawns on them that a whale is indeed coming for them, just as they are swallowed whole and find themselves in the belly of that great fish.

And this is why I think of Jonah.

Here in the belly of the whale, Marlin is convinced that they are dead meat. Literally. Dory, ever the optimist keeps talking with the whale in her best whale voice, asking the whale’s helpgetting to Sydney, while the cavity around them begins to drain of water. Believing that the water is definitely draining into one hungry whales stomach, Marlin tries with all his might to swim against the flow and hold on for dear life. What he doesn’t know is that in letting go, thewhale is saving them both, blowing them right out into the Sydney harbor.

And so we return to Jonah in the belly of the great fish. Convinced he is dead meat, he is resigned to his death. He deserves it. He has run from God, disobeying the most high. But on the 3rd day in his dark, nautical dungeon, he prays. Even running from God, God is with him. God speaks and he is amazed, because he knows he is undeserving, and he recommits himself to God, the Great Deliverer.

And this is when, what appeared to be his end, becomes his new beginning, his rebirth. The fish spits him out on land.

And there on the beach, God speaks to Jonah again, saying, “Go to Nineveh and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

What does Jonah willfully do? He turns and goes to Nineveh. He walks through it, proclaiming God’s Word to them, and this greatly wicked city responds. They repent of their sins. They turn away from their violent, wicked ways. And God has mercy upon them. God does not bring the calamity upon them that he had planned to do.

God was giving both Jonah and the people of Nineveh a second chance – the chance to hear to obey, to listen and to follow, to turn away from death and enter into life. And in their different ways, through very different paths, they both returned from great disobedience, to true obedience, from running away to pressing into, from evil to goodness.

God is calling still.

God knows there is much wickedness in the world. Many have blood on their hands. Many have risen on the broken backs of others. Many have built their kingdoms at the expense of our planet.

God knows there is much brokenness in our world. Many despair. Many have given up on trust or hope or justice. Many have given up believing that good is more powerful than evil, that light is more powerful than darkness. Many have given up on the church.

Our God is here. Our God hears. And our God is calling.
To you and to me.

May we be found
to trust and answer the call.