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‘Thanks Be to God”

I still count my blessings grateful that my church search when relocating to Richmond in 2010 landed me at Forest Hill Presbyterian Church (FHPC).  Worshiping and learning in the warm fellowship of FHPC has felt like a series of mindful, nurturing experiences, touched by the Word, feeling the Holy Spirit, all summoning out what I should be as a growing disciple of Christ.

I’ve learned in this decade at FHPC that the mark of an effective church is not how old it is or how many people come, but how many people live differently as a result of having been to that church.  I know God is love, that He loves us, and He wants us to love others, not only in our thoughts and prayers, but also in our actions and deeds.  For all that we have flows from God’s overwhelming love and grace.  And all that we do with what we have flows from saying thank you to God in grateful response for His love and grace.  Feeling the compelling call of Micah 6:8 to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God, I know that I’m living differently.  I praise and thank God more, I’ve grown more spiritually as a disciple, I serve more human needs, I pray more, and I give back more of my time, talent, and treasure that God first gave me.

Now in 2020, it is still clear to me that the people of FHPC continue to serve the Lord with gladness, creativity, faith, and perseverance since June 22, 1924.  While honoring our rich history, we are building a new future, taking many small steps toward big visions, for the God who called us and nurtured us in this place still has a role for FHPC to play in His kingdom.  And so we continue to cultivate enthusiasm as disciples for exercising our spiritual gifts both inside and outside the church doors.   What a blessing to have a strong-in-spite-of-small congregation at FHPC ever faithful to the ministry and mission of God in Christ!  Thanks be to God!

 

PM

“Following a Spectacular God”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Acts 11:1-18
Revelation 21:1-6

 

Acts 11:1-18

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

Revelation 21:1-6

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.


 

Do we have what it takes to follow God?

By all logical and reasonable assessments, the answer is no.  We surely do not.

And yet God has a pesky habit of calling people to follow who don’t look like your usual suspects.  Jesus called Peter – a rash, impulsive, unfiltered, uneducated…passionate, risk-taking, bold, courageous man.  God called Paul – a legalistic Jew/Roman citizen who was passionately persecuting Christians.

 

God calls us.

God calls them.

God calls the them that we avoid and do not like…

God calls.

 

And who are we to stand in the way of God!??

 

We hear this story of Peter as Peter’s explanation of to the Jews of Judea who are appalled to have gotten word that this leader in the faith has broken the Jewish rules and eaten with Gentiles.  He has been called to account for his actions.  And so he explains to them why he broke the rules.

He had been praying on the rooftop in Joppa – famished, as he waited for a meal to be prepared – when God sent a vision to him.  It was a large sheet being lowered before him from heaven, with every kind of bird and beast.  And there was a voice saying, “Peter, get up, kill, and eat.”  But he replied, “No Lord, for I’ve never eaten anything profane or unclean,” for the spread of animals before him were those that Jews were forbidden from eating.  But the voice then said, “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.”  This dialogue occurred three times before the sheet was pulled back to heaven, and immediately 3 men from Caesarea arrived asking for him.  Though these were Gentile men, requesting his presence, the Spirit of God told Peter not to make a distinction between them & the Jews but to instead go with them.

So Peter, trying out his new Holy Spirit capacities, listens and obeys.  He goes with the men.  When he arrives, the head of the house explains that he had seen an angel standing in his house who told him to go to Joppa and get the man called Peter – that Peter had a message for them by which his entire household would be saved.  And so he had sent his men to find Peter and bring him to them.

At this Peter begins to share the good news of the gospel, and even as he began to speak to them, the Holy Spirit fell on these Gentile people – in the same manner in which these Jews had also received the Holy Spirit.  And so Peter reasons that if God is accepting these people into the faith, then who is he to stand in the way of God.

Smart man.

 

Our God is unfathomable to us.  Our God is inconceivable.  Even our best imaginings of God fall dramatically short, for we cannot perceive our God.  Our God expands beyond our best understanding, our best knowledge, our greatest wisdom.  Our God is not contained in our books, in our words, in our hearts, in our communities, in our churches.

Our God is out and about!

Our God is continually surprising.

Our God is continually astounding.

Just when we think we understand, we go deeper and find new caverns and worlds to explore of God’s goodness, God’s mercy, God’s unfailing love, God’s fierce justice, God’s heart for the lost…

 

This is why we need to take care that we follow God – FOLLOW, not lead.

Usually we wouldn’t presume to LEAD GOD, …but we often presume to lead others.

 

And this is a beautiful thing.  Many, if not all, of us are called to lead in some way.  We lead in our jobs.  We lead in our families and homes.  We take leadership among friends.  And we take leadership in church.  This is called showing up and getting our skin in the game.  This is called investing in our communities and our community of faith.

 

But we must ever take care, that in every arena – home, work, church, friends – that we are FIRST followers. 

 

IF God were predictable.  IF God could be fully known and understood.  IF God were somehow contained in scripture or our churches…then perhaps we might could lead without listening to the Spirit.  Perhaps we could KNOW the way to go.  Perhaps.

But indeed God is far greater than we can begin to imagine or perceive or ever rightly anticipate.  THEREFORE, we are only right with God, insofar as we follow.  Follow.

 

We are not called to know all things.

We are not called to understand all things.

We are not called to see the future.

No.

 

We are called to follow the One who does.

We are called to follow the One who knows what is best.

We are called to follow the One who loves us with an unbreaking, never-giving-up love.

We are called to follow the only One who is worthy of our lives.

 

And what a sweet, sweet calling that is!

 

We get to be a part of what God is DOING, here and now!

We get to be part of the Spirit’s healing and saving work in our neighborhoods, in our friendships, in our families, in our homes, in our churches…

 

We are invited to join with the Maker of the Universe in making all things new!

 

And we are only powerful and effective, caring and well-cared-for, peace-making and peaceful, insofar as we are following. 

 

Now God does not guarantee us wealth and prosperity in this world.  God does not guarantee us happiness and success.  The pathways can be fraught with calamities and injustices.  But what we find in God is better than anything we could have bought or pursued, imagined or created for ourselves.

 

And so I ask you – are you getting in the way of God’s Spirit?

Are you fighting God?

 

Are you listening?

And are you following?

 

LIFE, abundant life, is what’s at stake.  That quality of life that makes life worth living is what God is offering us here.  And we open ourselves to this gift by following.

“I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly,” Jesus says. 

 

Will we live life abundantly?

Will we follow?

“Faithful Doubt”

By Rev. Katherine Todd
John 20:24-31
Jeremiah 29:13

 

John 20:24-31

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Jeremiah 29:11

When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart


 

To all those tossed about on the stormy seas of depression who are asking, “where is my God, my Rock?”

To all those watching the suffering of another, whose hearts are burning with the question, “Why, God!?  Where is your comfort?”

To all those witnesses of injustice, who are begging, “God show yourself.  Make this right!”

To all you who cannot find an answer to your suffering,

To all you who are waiting for a miracle, praying for a breakthrough,

To all you who live with questions about your faith, questions about the Bible, questions about Christianity…

 

I share with you this hope:  The Story of Thomas.

 
Thomas is a passionate disciple.  When Jesus tells the disciples of his plans to return to Mary & Martha’s home in order to bring their dead brother Lazarus back to life, the disciples all seek to discourage Jesus from going saying, “Rabbi the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and you are going there again?”  Realizing Jesus’ resolve, Thomas rallies the others saying, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  Thomas is a devoted disciple.

When Jesus, risen from the dead, shows himself to the other disciples, Thomas needs to know it is real.  He can’t help but doubt.  His doubt protects him, because when he believes something, he will go all out.  He cannot follow this Risen Jesus whole-heartedly until he is sure it is indeed him.

 

For eight long days, Thomas is adamant in his unbelief:  “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  …The Jesus I knew and loved was tortured, crucified, and buried.  If he is really Jesus, he will have those marks of torture and death.  Only then can I believe what you’re saying.

It can’t have been easy to disbelieve.  Meanwhile Thomas’ friends, the others are exuberant.  They are joyful.  They are no longer mourning.  They are excited.  They can’t wait to go forward, wherever Jesus will take them.  Thomas is still at the funeral.  He can’t understand their joy.  He can’t get excited about a future.  His entire hope was buried, and his friends are in different place.  Yet, Thomas stays with them.  When Jesus comes to them again, Thomas is there.  He remained in the discomfort of being on a different page than the others.  Without giving into pressure from his friends, he remained honest with himself and his closest friends about his thoughts & feelings.  He doubted actively, begging for a resolution, engaging in search of the truth.

And Jesus answers.  Eight days after He first showed himself to the disciples, Jesus reappears to them, while Thomas is present.  Jesus speaks directly to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not doubt, but believe!”

 

Jesus answers.

 

Thomas asked.  He sought out truth, and Jesus, faithful to his word opened the door and came in.  “Ask and it will be given you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”  Thomas was not lukewarm.  He was not afraid to take a stand.  He doubted out loud in front of his trusted companions.  He did not remain safe and obscure in silent doubt.  He did not trade his search for the truth for an image of piety.  He laid himself out on the line in honesty, in search of the truth.

Thomas finds what he is searching for.

 

Jesus, bearing the marks of death, yet alive, comes to him.  Jesus returns to answer this disciple’s passionate doubt.  Jesus comes that Thomas might passionately believe.  Thomas is blown away.  He worships Jesus:  “My Lord, and my God.”

Thomas is remembered to this day, as “doubting Thomas.”  But his story does not end in doubt.  His story ends in bold worship.  He asked.  God answered.  And he believed.

 

In Christian communities today, it is not popular to doubt.  Many of us tidy up our spiritual lives by packing and sometimes shoving our doubts into closets, where we hope they will remain hidden and forgotten.  Thomas shows us a radically different way to handle our doubts.   Thomas doubted OUT – LOUD.  It takes courage to doubt as Thomas did.

 

 

Today I want to share with you a song by Rich Mullins, a contemporary Christian artist who doubted like Thomas did.

Rich Mullins was a Christian Musical Artist of our time.  He wrote treasured songs such as Awesome God, and Step by Step.  He is known for his beautifully poetic and prophetic lyrics.  His songs were like landscapes:  vast and breathtaking while intimate and detailed.  He loved God dearly, and his music reflected both the complexity and the simplicity of life.  He is respected both for his musical contribution and his life of service to Christ.

Though he produced 9 highly acclaimed Christian music albums, Rich was notorious for never having any money.  Bob Thornton (KTLI Wichita) writes : “Rich used to come into the station quite a bit. He had friends who worked here and all of us knew him, so he would drop in when he was in town. He would just walk in the lobby and call out to any staff that was around, ‘Who wants to go to lunch? I haven’t got any money!’ That was Rich. He never had any money…”  He made a lot, and he gave it all way, literally.   Amy Grant said of Rich that “He was the uneasy conscience of Christian music.”  She explained that Rich had taken a vow of poverty.”

In 1995, after completing a degree in music education, Rich pursued one of his greatest dreams and moved to Tse Bonito, New Mexico to teach music to children on Native American Reservations.  Many such reservations could not afford to offer music classes in school.  Rich wanted the children to be blessed from God with music.  He wanted to bring the hope of Christ to the Native American reservation.

Though revered in many Christian circles, Rich strived to be honest with his doubts and struggles.  He did not bow to pressures to appear flawless.  Rather he humbled himself and was honest about the nitty gritty of life.  When he doubted, he doubted OUT LOUD, and when he believed, he believed OUT LOUD!

 

About his last recording, the Jesus record, a friend wrote:

For several years Rich had talked about making an album that would unfold the Jesus that we quickly gloss over on our way to church or Christian concerts. He wanted us to see the raw, rough Jesus who had dirty fingernails and who hung out with all the wrong people and loved them just as they were. It was a record, he said, that was “needed,” because for too many of us, Jesus had become domesticated, ordinary, and predictable. And necessary because those who believed Jesus to be otherwise often felt abandoned and alone in their convictions. Such was the nature of Rich’s work: he sought to at once challenge and heal, stir and to comfort, agitate and settle.

In September 1997, Rich sat down in an old, abandoned church, and, using a borrowed cassette recorder, recorded a demo tape for his new album.  The song, Hard to Get, is first on the recording, and it is one of Rich’s most explicit songs about doubt and faith.  In this song, the singer accuses God of playing hard to get up in heaven, while we all struggle down here on earth.  The song mingles knowledge of God’s love and mercy with the realities of pain and suffering.  It ends with a play on words in which the singer acknowledges God’s presence with him and concludes that rather than “playing hard to get,” God is “just plain hard to get.”

Nine days after this recording, Rich Mullins was killed in a car accident on his way to a benefit concert.  He left this world and went to meet his Love and Lord. Though only 41, when he died, Rich Mullins left a lifetime legacy of compassion and service to others.

 

I encourage you to listen to his song, “Hard to Get,” his demo version.  The words are below:

Hard to Get
You who live in heaven
Hear the prayers of those of us who live on earth
Who are afraid of being left by those we love
And who get hardened by the hurt
Do you remember when You lived down here where we all scrape
To find the faith to ask for daily bread
Did You forget about us after You had flown away
Well I memorized every word You said
Still I’m so scared, I’m holding my breath
While You’re up there just playing hard to get
You who live in radiance
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in skin
We have a love that’s not as patient as Yours was
Still we do love now and then
Did You ever know loneliness
Did You ever know need
Do You remember just how long a night can get?
When You were barely holding on
And Your friends fall asleep
And don’t see the blood that’s running in Your sweat
Will those who mourn be left uncomforted
While You’re up there just playing hard to get?
And I know you bore our sorrows
And I know you feel our pain
And I know it would not hurt any less
Even if it could be explained
And I know that I am only lashing out
At the One who loves me most
And after I figured this, somehow
All I really need to know

Is if You who live in eternity
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in time
We can’t see what’s ahead
And we can not get free of what we’ve left behind
I’m reeling from these voices that keep screaming in my ears
All the words of shame and doubt, blame and regret
I can’t see how You’re leading me unless You’ve led me here
Where I’m lost enough to let myself be led
And so You’ve been here all along I guess
It’s just Your ways and You are just plain hard to get

 

Let us pray.

Jesus, you amaze us as you care to answer our deepest doubts.

It amazes us that you go out of your way to meet us where we are.

May we have the honesty and courage of Rich Mullins.

May we have the faith of doubting Thomas.

May we seek you and find you, as we seek you with all our hearts.

In the middle of our chaos, depression, tragedy, and injustice, show yourself to us.

Let us see that you have been here too.  Let us touch your wounds.  Show us your face.

May we see your merciful eyes and outstretched hand.

May we experience the power of your resurrection in our own lives.

Lord, how we need your resurrection power in our lives.

We seek you, With all our heart.  Come Lord, Jesus, that we may worship you,

our Lord and our God!            Amen