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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.

 

 

 

 

 

“Hospitality to Strangers”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Matthew 25:31-46
Genesis 18:1-15 and 21:1-7
Hebrews 13:1-2

 

Matthew 25:31-46

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

 

Genesis 18:1-15 and 21:1-7

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

 

Hebrews 13:1-2

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

~~~~~~~~

 

This passage from Genesis stops me in my tracks before the story even gets going.  From the start we are let in on the fact that God was in fact meeting with Abraham, but it does not appear that Abraham knows this.  Rather, he looks up and sees 3 strangers standing nearby.

And not knowing that these 3 strangers are in fact God, Abraham’s response is so much more remarkable.

 

Do you know those who will fall all over themselves to bless and care for you?

That is the image I get here of Abraham.  Upon seeing strangers, he immediately jumps up, runs to them, and humbles himself – bowing low before them.  He begs them to allow him to provide for them nourishment as they rest awhile, and they accept.  He instructs Sarah to use the choice flour to bake cakes.  He instructs his servant to choose a calf, tender and good, from the herd to slaughter and prepare as food for his guests.  He gathers it all together with curds and milk and takes it to these three strangers

I am struck because I’m not accustomed to anyone going to such great lengths without a profound history of foreknowledge and respect for the guests.  Or perhaps one would go to such great lengths if one was afraid and wanting to pacify and please their unexpected guests.

But beyond such scenarios, I think we hardly ever see such willing, determined, and generous hospitality in our time.  …especially for complete strangers.

In fact, I suspect our first response would be more akin to irritation at the danger we might feel and the inconvenience of the drop-in.  And I, for one, find myself reticent to share the very best of what I have.  I usually want to save some (or all) for me…

 

But I suspect what is happening here is more about social norms.

With no fast food, no hotels or motels, every traveler remained dependent on the kindness and generosity of complete strangers.  And you would be more welcoming to others because you know that one day you may have to call on that same generosity and kindness, for survival.

 

But I suspect that Abraham’s own character is on display in this exchange.

He didn’t have to use the choice flour, to kill the tender young calf.  He didn’t have to run to meet them.  He didn’t have to.

He could have spoken only after they fully approached.  He could have remained seated, after all, he and his camp outnumbered them; Abraham was holding all the cards.  He could have served them but begrudgingly, not eagerly.  He could have planned to rob them of whatever they had on their person and to leave them half-dead somewhere obscure.

But Abraham rises, he runs to them, he humbles himself, and he lavishly serves them.

 

The writer of Hebrews exhorts the people to show hospitality – for in doing so, some have entertained angels.  But even greater than angels is God.  And here, we find that in entertaining these strangers, Abraham has indeed welcomed God.

And this may sound far-fetched to us – as we do not expect to encounter God in our driveways, hallways, or front steps, but Jesus brings is home, when he tells the parable of the nations.  In this parable, God separates people, and the deciding factor is how they behaved to “the least of these,” the nobodies, the unmentionables, the dregs, the invisible, the dispensable.

 

Please do not hear me as condoning these disparaging and demeaning names for those most vulnerable in our society.  But I use these words, to hopefully call to our minds the various faces of those we have passed by.  Can you see them?

Can you see the faces of those deemed un-noteworthy?  Those who have been counted as collateral damage to progress?  Those ostracized and rejected?  Those condemned by the dreadful circumstances into which they have sometimes been placed, been born, or fallen into?

 

Do we show this abundant, eager, insistent hospitality? 

Do we humble ourselves before them – not assuming our better situation is the result of our efforts alone, or that their disparaging situation is the result of their negligence or sin?

 

I suspect most of us cannot say we have ever offered hospitality like that which we see in this story of Abraham.

Let that sink in.

 

When the Kingdom of God is – at its center – hospitality to the stranger, how have we gone so wrong as to judge and ignore those who come close to our tents. 

I am guilty.

 

And what is it that we miss when we fail to welcome God in the stranger in our midst?

Where would any of us be now?  …We children of Abraham – not by blood but grafted onto the family tree by the grace and favor of our God?

Scripture says that in this meeting the Lord met with Abraham,
and in this meeting unawares,
God foretells that this aged couple will at last bear a child of their own flesh and blood!

It is the hope for which they long-waiting, went astray, and stopped hoping altogether. 

 

What is the hope for which you long-await?
What is the hope for which we long-await?
What is the relief and provision that will be balm to our souls?

I suspect that you, like me, ache.

We ache.
And our long-waiting has taken the form of prayer,
Of hope,
Of discouragement,
Of misguided efforts, and
Of despair, …at times.

 

How much more-so would your whole being ache
To think that God’s mighty and perfect provision came,
But was ignored,
Judged,
Dismissed,
Despised,
Shown the door?

 

God shows up among us in the stranger.

God shows up among us in the powerless.

God shows up among us. 

 

And what will you do?

 

What will we do?

…when such stranger shows up here?

 

What will we do? 

“Are We Blind? Do We Not See?”

Rev. Katherine Todd
John 9:1-41

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”

The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.


 

In this exchange in the Gospel of John, we get to witness just how blind the religious elite have become.

The ironic is as thick peanut butter!  Here, this man born blind, is the one who truly sees Jesus, confesses his faith, and preaches to the Pharisees.  And the Pharisees, all with sight from birth, are so blind they cannot receive this gift of truth and witness in the person and work of Jesus.

It is tragedy.

 

What gets me is the Pharisees’ logic.  Their logic is as follows:  Jesus healed on the sabbath, thus he’s a sinner, and therefore he’s not from God.  Using their own human rules, they conclude Jesus cannot be from God.

Now God had indeed given the Israelites the law, and the law forbade them from working on the sabbath, but as so many of us do, they took it too far and missed the point.  This law meant to preserve the people from overwork and exhaustion, this law meant to provide rest and relief, this law meant for life and wholeness…it was being used to deny life and wholeness.  It was being used as yet another heavy burden on the shoulders of God’s people.  The law was for the people – not the people for the law.  But the religious elite had done the work of interpreting the law for people’s everyday lives, and they’d restricted so very many activities, that even to rescue an animal fallen into a well would have been considered sin.  And Jesus would have none of it. 

Jesus did not let the main point escape him.  Jesus knew his calling to deliver and save.  And wherever he went, whatever day it was, he set himself to the task.  And he did not neglect the work of rest and retreat.  He very intentionally goes off by himself to high mountaintops.  He sleeps through storms.  He lives sabbath, even more often than most.

But because he disobeys the human-made rules of not healing on the sabbath day, the Pharisees conclude he is a sinner.

 

How many times do we do something similar?  Do we extrapolate a multitude of rules and moral codes, using them to disqualify others?  Do we judge people based on our own interpretations of God’s law?

You see, the Pharisees were technically preserving the law God gave them.  But as life presented an infinite number of variations and unforeseen circumstances, they themselves began to build on the law, interpret the law, build structures and rules around the law.  And before long, they could no longer see the difference between the law and their laws.  They could no longer discern the difference between God’s heart and their hearts, God’s will and their will.

 

Have you ever had this experience?  It is frankly not all that hard to do.

 

Have you ever been so sure you rightly interpreted some passage of scripture or some guidance, that you have closed your ears, eyes, and hearts to any other possibility?

I know I have.

 

But when we are so sure we know,

When we are so sure we see,

When we are so sure we hear,

When we are so sure we rightly understand,

We effectively have become blind to God-with-us. 

 

And here in this story Christ walks among them, with magnificent signs and wonders…

The blind see, the lame walk, the dead arise!…

The man-born-blind is made to see!…

 

But they themselves cannot see who it is who walks among them.  They cannot see because they are so sure they already see!  They cannot understand because they are so sure they already understand.  They cannot hear the healed man’s witness because they have already decided that this man is bad and Jesus is bad.

 

For you see, the very fact that this man was born blind had led these religious leaders to believe that he was full of sin.  God would not allow a righteous person to be born blind, they thought!  Sure this man and/or his parents sinned.  And that is why the disciples too are asking Jesus “Who sinned, that this man was born blind?”

The religious leaders were teaching that every disease and ailment, every ill-fortune, was the result of sin.  And that led them to all sorts of judgements.  This is why Job’s friends all those years before were so adamant that sure Job had sinned to have gone through such extreme loss of family, wealth, and health.

 

But as obvious as it is to us that “bad” things do happen to “good” people, I think we are just as quick to jump into judgements when something bad happens to someone.

  •             Isn’t this why we keep our distance from those who are under?
  •             Isn’t it why we put so many rules around who gets our service and help?
  •             Isn’t it why we privately despise many of those in need?

 

As obvious as it is to us that God’s ways are above our ways, and God’s thoughts above our thoughts, I think we are just as quick to confuse our interpretations of God’s Word for God’s Word.

  •             Is this not why many of us dig in our heals and refuse to even listen to the others?
  •             Is this not why many of us close our ears and refuse to dialogue?
  •             Is this not why we consider ourselves such experts on who is “good” and who is “bad”?
  •             Does this not contribute to our own sense of pride and self-righteousness? – the fact that we are one of the only ones upholding our own moral code and set of convictions?

 

And as obvious as it is to us that Jesus was the Messiah, I think we are just as quick to miss the holy among us.  For when those who do not look like us, do not have what we have, have not learned what we’ve learned venture to witness among us to God’s presence and power and might,

  •             Do we not baulk?
  •             Do we not question?
  •             Do we not venture to disprove?

 

Has God shown up among us in the uneducated?

Has God shown up among us in the illiterate?

Has God shown up among us without credentials?

Has God shown up among us after being imprisoned?

Has God shown up among us in a person of different religious & ethnic background?

 

When God shows up among us,
are we using our own human standards
to discredit what is plainly before our eyes? 

 

May we humble ourselves.

May we reform from our addiction to judgement.

May we be like little children:  open.

 

For our God shows up. 

The lame walk,

the blind see,

the dead come to life.

“I was born blind, but now I see.” 

 

 When God meets us,

As indeed God has before and will again,

may we too have eyes to see. 

“Our God Comes”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Isaiah 63:7-9
Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

 

Isaiah 63:7-9

I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,
the praiseworthy acts of the Lord,
because of all that the Lord has done for us,
and the great favor to the house of Israel
that he has shown them according to his mercy,
according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
For he said, “Surely they are my people,
children who will not deal falsely”;
and he became their savior
in all their distress.
It was no messenger or angel
but his presence that saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

 

Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

Now after the wise men had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”


 

 

Can you imagine the journey Mary and Joseph have been on?

First Mary is confronted by an angel who tells her she will bear God’s child.  So she becomes pregnant and is totally at the mercy of Joseph and the society, for in that day women who had slept with someone outside of marriage could be stoned to death.  Her fiancé Joseph figures out that she is pregnant…and not by him.  He plans to dismiss her quietly – breaking their engagement.  But instead he is instructed by an angel in a dream to take Mary as his wife – that she is pregnant by the Holy Spirit.

 

What a roller coaster!  Had either or Mary or Joseph imagined their wedding day, their marriage, conceiving a child, etc.,…they could not have imagined THIS.  The order is all out of whack.  One would hope to wed and then conceive and birth a child, but instead a child is on the way before they even are intimate or married.

Now Joseph has all the power here.  He can marry her, have her killed, or dismiss her quietly.  He can carry out his own plan, or he can follow what the angel tells him in a dream.  And he chooses to follow.  He marries Mary.

And THIS is where they might hope to settle down, find their stride, set up home, and build a life together, but alas, there is a census.  Everyone must travel to their city of origin – to be counted.  And so Mary, very pregnant, and Joseph must travel over hills and valleys to Bethlehem.

When they arrive, all they want is a soft bed and warm food.  All they want is a place lay their heads and close their eyes.  But perhaps they were slower on the road.  Perhaps their journey took a tad longer.  Whatever it was, Bethlehem was full to the brim.  There was no room for them.  All they were offered was a cattle shed out back.

And our very-pregnant-Mary goes into labor.

 

Nothing about their engagement, wedding, first year of marriage was going according to plan.  None of it was what they’d dreamed of.

And now, they were giving birth to their first child, in an animal barn out back.

But God showed up.  The brightest star shone overhead – as though God’s light was breaking through the heavens to pour warm light on God’s Son.  Angels broke through the heavens with singing – before the only ones keeping watch that night, the shepherds.  And when they took their beautiful baby boy to the temple to be circumcised, Anna and Simeon greet them with joyous prophecy; their son is the long-awaited one!  And over time, that bright star guided Wise Men from the east, who would travel long distances to find the newborn King and pay him homage.

Gifts and provision.

 

Confirmation

after confirmation

after confirmation.

 

The red carpet was not rolled out.

They were not teleported to their destinations.

Doors did not magically open.

But God showed up.  Angels showed up.  God spoke to them in dreams, in signs and wonders, and through the people around them…those who were watching, those who were seeking, those who were waiting.

 

And so we would hope that at this point in the story, they would joyously make their way back home.  But not so.  Again, Joseph is visited in a dream.  He is instructed to flee to Egypt with his family – that Herod is coming to destroy their perfect baby boy.

And again, Joseph has a choice to make – to stay or to go.  I imagine both he and Mary must ache for some normality, some comfort, some routine, some family, some coffee, a night off, some familiar…  But the storm of Herod’s fear and jealousy is coming like a fury.  And this precious family has no protection, except the voice of God breaking into their reality.

God breaks through. 

Joseph again chooses to obey, to follow after God, to believe, to trust, to place his hand in the hand of God.

 

And so they flee.

They flee to Egypt.

And God instructs them to stay until Herod dies.  Which they do.

 

Can you imagine?

 

GOD is doing amazing things.  GOD has come.  GOD is turning the world around.  GOD is breaking through, into our reality, into our lives, into the order and disorder of things…

God is breaking into hearts by an infant –

an infant whose tiny hands grasp our flawed fingers,

an infant whose wrinkled feet are swaddled in rags and laid in straw,

an infant who learns his first words following the faces and sounds of his perfectly imperfect parents.

And after learning from us, this infant would grow to be a boy anointed and a man full of grace and truth.  For GOD has broken through – through the hardened edges of our religiosity, our legalism, our nationalism, our egos and errors and fears.

GOD is breaking through.

 

And GOD is breaking through still.

And like that first Christmas, God comes still through the perfectly imperfect.

God comes when nothing goes according to our plans.

God comes when we, like Joseph and Mary, choose to follow God’s leading, God’s nudge.

God comes when we are seeking like the Wise Men

Watching like the Shepherds

Waiting like Anna and Simeon

 

God comes.

 

Will we have listening ears,

Watching eyes,

Seeking hearts,

Following feet?

 

Will you?

 

 

Get ready.  Have a bag packed.  Keep your cell phone charged, gas in your car, bus money in your pocket, walking shoes on your feet – for our God comes.

 

Will you be ready? 

“Come, O Prince of Peace”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Luke 2:1-20

 

Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.


 

 

We tell this story of Jesus’ birth because it matters.

 

More than just a sweet story…

More than a fairy tale – with snow and animals and wise men…

More than a tradition – with carols and Christmas trees and gift giving…

 

It is more.  It is far more.

 

But if we focus too much on the fairy tale, on the traditions, on the sweetness, we just might miss the real deal.  All those things are fine, but only if they are held secondarily to the main thing.  And the main thing is Christ – come to live within our hearts.

Now, I don’t know about you, but raised in Christian culture, I have heard about Christ living our hearts for all my life.  It is something I know in my mind.  And because I know it in my mind – because it has become something I think I understand – I have verged on missing the point entirely myself at times.

For God didn’t come to claim an earthly Kingdom,

God didn’t come to stake out territory and force obedience,

…God didn’t come in all the ways we expected God to come.

 

With all the scripture about righteousness and judgement and justice, they thought God would come and shake up our human systems – making things just and right, placing power in the hands of the righteous.  And we too, have wanted God to enter into our human systems & revolutionize them – wiping away systemic injustice and evil.

After all, we believe God can’t stand evil.  God will not stand for evil and all that kills and destroys.  So doesn’t mean God will take down those who have power unjustly?  Doesn’t it mean that God will lift up those who are oppressed unjustly?  Doesn’t it mean that God will make things right in this world?

Well yes, but not in the ways we think.

For instead of running for political power, instead of joining the movement to overthrow Rome’s governance of Israel, instead of forming a coup to overthrow the powers that be, Jesus did all the wrong things.

Jesus didn’t woo the powerful.  Jesus didn’t meet with all the right people.  Jesus didn’t advance through the ranks of the religious elite.

 

Rather Jesus met with all the wrong people – the sinners and the broken, the diseased and outcast, the estranged and the powerless.  To the frustration of his followers, Jesus wouldn’t catalyze his popularity, to advance his own interests.  To the frustration of his followers, Jesus managed to tick off all the people he would need to please in order to advance.

And he didn’t just tick them off, they felt threatened by him, so much so, that they would vow to take him down.

 

Jesus doesn’t do any of the things we expect.  But what Jesus does isn’t surface.

 

Jesus didn’t come to change the law, or the rules, or the systems.

All those things matter, but Jesus was in the business of the root causes of all our turmoil and distress.

 

Jesus came to heal hearts.

Jesus came to heal the human heart.

 

The root of all our fighting and hurt,

The root of our broken relationships and communities,

The root of our sorrow and isolation,

Come from the state of our hearts.  For it is from the human heart that all kinds of vile and evil come.  So Jesus came fishing for hearts.

 

Our Prince of Peace knows that the only lasting peace is created from the inside out, one heart at a time.

 

So Jesus didn’t come as a ruler.

Jesus came as a baby.

 

If you look around and wonder – “where is this Prince of Peace?”  I am glad you are asking the question.  Christ is still living and active – working through you and I, but if we’re not allowing God into the innermost sanctums of our hearts, day by day, there’s a good chance we’re not spreading peace but rather our own turmoil.

God has come!  Christ is here!

Our responsibility is to welcome God into our hearts, day after day, that indeed the peace that passed understanding will keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  And God’s peace will spread from heart to heart, through-out the whole earth.

 

It begins with you and with me.