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“Sin’s Obscurity and God’s Purposes”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Romans 8:26-39
Genesis 29:15-28

 

Romans 8:26-39

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

Genesis 29:15-28

Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.” So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.

Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.” So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” Laban said, “This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife.


 

The fact is that almost any behavior can be justified using the Bible.  In the Bible, there is rape; there is murder; there is mob mentality; dismemberment; racial discrimination; genetic engineering; magic; divination; genocide; the stealing of land and possession; slavery; concubines; polygamy; royal, live versions of “The Bachelor,” stonings; rebellions; terrorist attacks; deceit; human trafficking; executions; child sacrifice; and even the sanctified killing of babies…

Now you may say, “Yes, but we know those things were wrong; they are only in there to teach us that they are wrong.”  And you may be correct.  But how do we know which is which?

 

In the Bible men are not to have long hair.  Pork is not to be eaten.  Women must have long hair and wear a head covering.  Women must separate themselves from community and isolate during their seven days of menstruation.  Animal sacrifices are to be brought.  Circumcision is a thing.  Animals are not to be cooked in their own milk…

The lists of do’s and don’ts are extraordinarily long.

And why?
Most of us would say we are now exempt from this long list of rules.
Why?
Because in Christ the old is gone and the new has come.
But this also does not mean we simply drop all the stories.  They still have value.
But it places a particular burden on the reader. 

And this burden is that of prayer, study, and discernment.

For without prayer, without the leading of the Spirit of God, our own minds and hearts can rationalize and excuse any plethora of behavior.

The Bible was used in support of slavery.  It was used in support of keeping women silent.  I has been used to justify slaughtering entire nations, burning “witches” at the stake, and it is probably still used my some today to justify polygamy.  After all, even this story of our beloved patriarch Jacob, we hear of how he takes two wives – both Leah and Rachel.  And though he did not ask for this, he nonetheless walked this path.  And this is a path so many of our Fathers in the faith walked.  Abraham had one wife, but he slept with his wife’s slave.  David had many lovers, including one he stole from one of his most loyal and honorable servants.  Solomon had many lovers.  …And these are only the examples we know about.

The responsibility of reading the Bible prayerfully – opening oneself up to God in a listening, in a conversation – is most imperative.

 

And then we must read it intelligently.  It is our responsibility to learn the cultures in which these passages were written.  Context absolutely matters when interpreting scripture.  We need to be able to take a step back from any one particular passage and begin to see the meta-narrative – the overarching themes, direction, point of it all.  We need to read enough of scripture that we can allow them to inform one another, to converse, to challenge, to be in tension.  Just like we are strengthened by those with whom we disagree, scripture is best heard in tension with other contrasting scriptures.  This is part of how we tease out and understand the deeper meaning.  For example, Paul says, “Women keep silent.”  But then he praises Eunice, who was a church leader.  Paul says, “Slaves remain as you are.”  But then he says, “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, man or woman, slave or free.”

When heard together, these passages can be quite bewildering, but it can also lead us to dive deeper, to ask the questions.  And in the asking, in the seeking, God says we will find.

 

In my own seeking on these questions, I came to believe that Paul was both pastor and prophet.  He would, at once, see the end vision AND nurture the people on a path to get there.  The path and the end vision are not the same.  One is stark, the other gradual.  But in the end, both aim in the same direction.  Paul also believed Jesus would return within his lifetime, and so he encourages people to set down their own needs and to instead focus on God, compromise, lay down their own lives for the sake of others.  And while these instructions stand well on their own over the test of time, they also help us understand why Paul did not try navigating faster toward the final vision of equality, the final vision of family unity, the final vision of freedom.  He felt the time was short.  So he cut to the chase; “better to loose ones life and save ones soul.”

 We are called to read the scriptures with discernment.  Discernment is a coming together of everything:  prayer, listening, studying, comparing…

 

In our Old Testament scripture passage today, we witness deceit; polygamy; the possession, trading, and bargaining of men over women’s lives; and the possession and trading of enslaved persons.

Would you have wanted to be deceived as was Jacob?

Would you have wanted to be secretly switched out with your sister for a bridal night with her betrothed?  Unwanted, yet forced into the middle?

Would you have wanted to have your betrothed, given secretly to sleep with your sister, on your own wedding night?

Would you want to be the property of anyone, much less such a deceitful man, and then all of sudden given as property to his daughter?

 

None of this is good.

None of this is fair.

None of this is right.

 

And yet, God still speaks to us through it.

God meets us in the mess of the world – the messes we’ve made and those that have befallen us – and is present…in healing, in restoration, in mercy, in justice, in growth, in redemption.

And are we ready for the whole shebang at once?!?

Though I have long yearned and cried and prayed for God to make all things right.  If God did, then I too would be wiped out, for I too participate in societal sins – many of which I am not even aware of.

Will my children and my children’s children look back on me and condemn my depletion of this world’s fossil fuels, the littering of our oceans, the cutting down of our forests, the wiping out of entire species?…

Will my children or my children’s children look back on me and condemn how long it took me to realize that I am gay?  The fact that my lack of self-awareness took a toll on my former husband?  The fact that it took me so long to speak God’s words to me, those words spoken into my theoretical questions from Seminary 20 years ago about whether or not it was right to be gay.  Those words God spoke into my heart saying, “I have made people this way.  And it is pleasing in my sight.”  Will they look on my silence on the matter for so long …with indictment?

Will my children’s children be able to tolerate the abuse I bore?  Will they have compassion on the slowness of my own empowerment?  Will they shake their heads at how I silenced myself, made excuses for my abuser, put my own needs last, discredited my own emotions, failed to listen to my own heart and soul,…for so very long?

Will my children or my children’s children look back at the trash I created, at the possessions I owned, at the chemicals I used on this earth?

Will they look back on the segregation I tolerated, the privileges I received?

Will they look back on my ignorance to my own state and sins?

Will they look back and be able to see in hindsight all my flaws?

 

They probably will.

 

God is walking us all toward a more just and whole world.  Our rates of growth vary.  Some of us walk.  Some of us run.  And some of us lie down and refuse to move.

God loves us and all of creation.  And this love comes through in our continued awakenings, openness, growth, and change.  This love comes through in discipline, in turning us around, sometimes gently and sometimes most abruptly.  God gives us vision of the end AND paths to get there.  God has compassion on us, in our becoming.  God loves us, just as we are.  AND God is calling us to lay down the sins and weights that cling so closely and to run this race set before us – with intelligence, energy, and love that covers all things!

 

Thanks be to God for working all things together for the good of all those who love God and are called to be part of God’s purposes in the world.

Thanks be to God for not giving up on us – for correcting us as a parent who loves her child and running like the father of the prodigal son, welcoming his wayward son back home with great joy and gladness.

Thanks be.

 

May we fulfill the purposes God is working in our lives.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~

 PRAYERS 

                                                                                     Psalm 126
O Lord God,
May those who sow with tears
Reap with joy.

Thomas a Kempis (Germany, 1380-1471)
Make that possible to us, O Lord, by grace, which appears impossible to us by nature.

Martin Luther (Germany, 1483-1546)
O God, we believe this life is not a state of being righteous, but rather, of growth in righteousness; not a state of being healthy, but a period of healing; not a state of being, but becoming, not a state of rest, but of exercise and activity.  We are not yet what we shall be, but we grow towards it; the process is not yet finished, but is still going on; this life is not the end, it is the way to a better.  All does not yet shine with glory; nevertheless, all is being purified.

9th century Latin Hymn
O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by Thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight

Emmanuel, you have come to us.  You dwell among us.  You make all things new.
Come, O come, Emmanuel!
And hear our prayers…

 

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

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

 

Psalm 91:1-6, 9

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

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

 

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

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

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


 

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

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

The writer of 1 Peter gives this advice:

1 – Humble yourselves

2 – Casts your anxieties on God

3 – Discipline yourselves

4 – Resist the devil

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

“I Once Was Blind, But Now I See”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Psalm 100
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Psalm 100

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
come into God’s presence with singing.

Know that the Lord is God.
It is he that made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to the Lord, bless God’s name.

For the Lord is good;
God’s steadfast love endures forever,
and God’s faithfulness to all generations.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

 


 

In this season, we are reminded to give thanks.

Giving thanks is something we know we should do.  On some level, we all know we are blessed, but in the day to day, we find it exceedingly difficult to stay in a grateful place.

Some days, things seem to fall into place; the road rises to meet us!  Other days we find ourselves face to face with injustice, with short-sighted and inconsiderate behavior, with quandaries in which we feel forced to choose between the lessor of two evils…

And even when our situations aren’t so dire or discouraging, we’re often just in a funky mood because we had to drive behind someone slowly on the highway, or wait long in line, or make extra trips to the store because what we wanted wasn’t in stock…

From the simple things to the deeply complex, we find ourselves mired in negative thought patterns.

 

So if you will, I’m gonna give you several minutes to briefly jot down all the things that are bugging you today – big and small things.  Nobody needs to see your list, unless you want them too; this is just an exercise we’re doing for ourselves.

So if you will right now, actually take the next three minutes, and jot down all the things that have got you down or angry or worried.

It is exceedingly difficult to stay in position of gratitude, but gratitude it turns out is one of the markers of resilience.  Gratitude actually has the power to drive out depression and fear.  It turns out that anger, fear, and depression, to name a few, cannot thrive in an atmosphere of gratitude.

So it would seem that giving thanks is the chicken soup for a tired soul.

 

As my son Caleb was growing up, he struggled to say thank you.  In his early years he often forgot, and if I reminded him, he would get upset and the gift-giver would become uncomfortable.  No one wants a forced thank you!  We want folks to mean what they say.  Otherwise the words feel hollow.

But waiting till we feel thankful is also a danger because gratitude at its root is a spiritual discipline.  Discipline is something few of us want.  I know I certainly don’t.  But there are disciplines that strengthen and ground us.

We discipline ourselves to eat regular meals

So that our bodies will be well and able to support us.

We discipline ourselves to get good sleep

    So that we have energy and a good state of mind and body for the coming day.

We discipline ourselves to not speak words in anger

  So that we don’t burn bridges and create divides between us and the people in our   lives.

 

Gratitude in its best form is also a discipline, a spiritual discipline.

Gratitude becomes lifegiving to us, when we do it whether or not we feel anything.  In fact, it is most powerful when we discipline ourselves to give thanks in the midst of trial and adversity.

 

Our own Phylliss Moret tells the story of supervising other supervisors.  They would come to her complaining about so & so, offering a litany of shortcomings.  And after listening for a bit, she would say, “Well if they are that bad, then why are they still here?  Should we let them go?”  And at this, the disgruntled supervisors would quickly say, “But, we need them because…..”  For all the frustration, there was also so much good, and when it came down to it, the good often outweighed the bad.  The complaints were only part of the picture.  Usually there was a host of good that the supervisors were failing to articulate.

The same is true of our lives.  Talk to any one of us on a given day, and we can give you a litany of the many things wrong; of the challenges; of our worries, concerns, and fears.  But in this same moment, we are standing on a wealth of immeasurable blessing that we are taking for granted.

 

A friend of mine illustrated this so well in a facebook post.  She posted a list on notebook paper equating her complaints with their converse, blessings-in-disguise.

11'25'18 Grateful List

This is why gratitude as a spiritual discipline is so very important.  It is precisely because we become blind to the blessings and gifts in our lives.  We need the routine task of giving thanks in order to wake us up to the immensity of blessing in our lives!

 

So at this moment, I want to give you another 3 minutes to consider your complaints one by one and to write down the blessings that lie just under each complaint.  And if you finish while there’s still time, just go hog wild & start a list of the things in your life you are grateful for.

I have asked you to do this exercise not to shame your for your unhappy feelings and thoughts.  Those feelings and thoughts are legitimate.  They are important.  Our negative feelings are there to teach and guide us.  We feel what we feel, and then we process them in light of our values to decide how we will respond to them.  But in and of themselves, feelings are neither good nor bad.  They may be uncomfortable.  They may be deeply upsetting.  But when befriended, they can give us insight into ourselves.  They are one of the many fabulous tools God has given us to navigate our mysterious selves and this mysterious world.

So please don’t take away any shame.

Rather, I hope you will take away a greater awareness of how you’re feeling – the happy, the sad, and the ugly – and of the many blessings in your life.

Life is not one thing.  It is a mix of events – both beautiful and tragic; of feelings – both highs and lows; of growth – both painful and invigorating.

 

Following Christ in this life does not mean we will be always blissful and that nothing bad will ever happen to us.  But Christ teaches us to give thanks in all circumstances.  For in all things, there is much to give thanks for.  And when we do, we unlock new perspective and strength.

 

As we leave the season of Thanksgiving and approach Advent, I invite you to begin your own spiritual discipline of giving thanks.  Do it however you like:  keep a gratitude journal, keep adding to a list, speak the things you’re grateful for at mealtimes, share three things you’re grateful for with a spouse or a friend each day…  But whatever you choose, stick to it.  See it through.  Persevere.

 

And let us see what God can do

in and through hearts

that are AWAKE to the profound gifts and blessings of God in our lives.

 

French novelist Marcel Proust writes, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

 

May God grant us the ability to see as God sees,

with new eyes. 

And who knows,

we may find our whole world transformed.

 Thanks be to God!