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“Love Turning the Tables of Sin”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Jeremiah 31:31-34
John 12:23-33

 

Jeremiah 31:31-34

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt — a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

 

John 12:23-33

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say — ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

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“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say — ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28Father, glorify your name.”

Hear this intimate moment we have with Jesus, hearing the trouble of his soul.

 

Have you ever felt troubled of soul?
Have you ever cried out to God – “Save me!”

 

Jesus is troubled but will not cry out for God to save him – as he recognizes his purpose is bound up in this moment.
He recognizes that in this moment, something larger is at play.  And he knows that – in the end – God will use his death to “draw all people” to himself.

And so he remains
present in that miserable moment.
He remains
present
even as the waters of his soul are troubled.

 

How many of us are present to our pain? 

I know we all have deepest pains in our lives, and yet we are taught to sweep it under the rug,
to press through it,
to keep going,
to dry our tears and suck it up…

And Jesus not only expresses the distress of his soul, but cries most earnest tears in that garden, before he is arrested.

Jesus sits with his pain.
Jesus doesn’t turn on Netflix or start scrolling Facebook.
He doesn’t party harder, drink in excess, or just stay busy.
No.
He quiets himself.
He sits with his troubled heart.

 

And then he is able to press through it.

 

You see in sitting with it, he is facing reality head-on, un-medicated.

In sitting with his pain of spirit, he is pressing in, rather than leaning out.

Jesus is facing the awful truth that great fear and acts of evil will seek to end him.
He is facing a most painful transition.
He is facing the loss of this human life, alongside his friends.

He – who has touched so many in healing – will be the object of a people’s effort to silence him and to control the message…
He – who healed the sick and set the prisoner free – will be imprisoned, tortured, and barbarically killed…on full display.

I cannot imagine how Jesus felt, in the months and weeks and days leading up to his crucifixion.  Jesus knows what is coming, and proceeds anyway, step after troubling step. 

 

And he sees that his followers would face much the same opposition and suffering.
And he encourages them saying – you will do even greater things!

Note – Jesus does not say they will have it easy because he has it hard.
He doesn’t guarantee smooth passage, in fact he pretty much guarantees rough passage. 

He does not imply that they will know ease and comfort in this life.
Rather he compares his followers to seeds – that must fall to the ground and die – in order to yield and multiply their fruit. 

 

Like himself, Jesus’ followers would die in faithfulness to the Truth,
in love for God and God’s people
and like Jesus, they would not die at God’s own tender hands,
but at the merciless hands of people who do not know God, who do not see God, and who do not care.

And for anyone awake,
Alert,
Alive,
This is an emotional journey.

But in death, as in life,
Jesus models for us a way to handle such grief, pain, and affliction:
by being present to them
,
being present to that grief, pain, and affliction.
Notice, Jesus doesn’t take himself off the cross early or heal himself, as he most certainly could have done.
Jesus doesn’t command a storm to erase his enemies and free him from that most terrible crucifixion.
He is present. 
He bears it.  He endures.
He speaks peace.  He speaks truth.
He prays.  He keeps on caring…to the end.
And not without cries of pain, complaints and questioning of God,
not without his plea that there might be another way. 

And I suspect that if we are ever to live lives a fraction as faithful as our Lord Christ, we too need learn this deepest form of presence. 

 

Henri Nouwen was a Dutch Catholic priest, a professor, a writer, and a theologian.  He wrote many beloved classics – some of which were recently donated by colleague Helen Laundry.  In his life, he aimed to speak faith into the most personal and universal matters of daily living.  And he writes this entitled, “Befriend Your Pain”

“I want to say to you that most of our brokenness cannot be simply taken away.  It’s there.  And the deepest pain that you and I suffer is often the pain that stays with us all our lives.  It cannot be simply solved, fixed, done away with…  What are we then told to do with that pain, with that brokenness, that anguish, that agony that continually rises up in our heart?  We are called to embrace it, to befriend it.  To not just push it away…to walk right over it, to ignore it.
No, to embrace it, to befriend it, and say, “That is my pain and I claim my pain as the way God is willing to show me his love.”

 

This is a different way of responding to pain than most of us run to.
Most often we numb it,
run from it,
deny it,
bury it.

But to befriend it,
To recognize our pain as yet another way that we shall know God’s great love,
THAT is courageous.
THAT is hopeful.
THAT is redemptive.
And THAT is what we see in our Lord, Jesus Christ.

 

Jesus walks through his valley of the shadow,
his dark night of the soul,
even while seeing it coming
because he KNOWS that the sacrifice of his life – sacrificed by human hands who did not know and did not love him – will nevertheless yield a great harvest of righteousness.  Through this most gruesome and tragic murder, Christ would indeed draw ALL people to himself – writing the law of God on hearts, instead of stones, in order that EVERYONE might know God.

Halleluia!

In this hell-of-our-own-making, in this senseless murder of a young man of color, in this our effort to prevent the ending of an era of fear-based works-righteousness – with all the power, privilege, and wealth it afforded a few – Christ nonetheless turned all this, our sin, on its head!

Even as we murdered Love,
Love was saving us. 

For our salvation, Christ endured such abuse none should bear.

 

So, as we walk this lonesome valley
– often alone in times of greatest trial, as was Christ –
may we recognize that WE ARE NOT ALONE
FOR CHRIST WALKS IT WITH US.
…For Christ is alive today, in our hearts!

We – who have died to this world and come alive to Christ –
Are under the jurisdiction of Christ.
Our lives are not determined by the evils that swirl around us or the sins that cling so closely.
Our lives are infused with the power of Christ living within us. 

 

So in our living and our dying
and in our resurrection from the dead,
may we too quiet ourselves,
and be present
– amid both joys and pain.

And by pressing in – whate’r our days may bring –
may we too
persevere
to the end,
by the power and presence of Christ,
living in us.

And in-so-doing,
may Christ flip every sin, every evil perpetrated against us, every failure to love and use them to build up the Kingdom
so that
many more might know – in the depths of their being –
just how steadfast and enduring,
long-suffering and relentless
is God’s love for them.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Heirs, by Faith”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Mark 8:31-38
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Romans 4:13-25

 

Mark 8:31-38

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

 

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”

God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

 

Romans 4:13-25

For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.

For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) — the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.

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This passage from Romans makes interesting interpretation of the Old Testament Scripture concerning God’s promise to Abraham and his resulting faith.  Paul points out that Abraham indeed has no physical reason to believe God’s Word, God’s promise.  He is already 99 years old – “as good as dead,” Paul writes – and Sarah has been barren their whole marriage, never bearing a child.

Abraham believes God’s Word – not because his eyes SEE the promise in the making, not because he SEES the path toward this good promise.  Abraham believes God’s promise IN SPITE OF his circumstances – which would only serve to discourage belief, rather than encourage it.  And Paul writes that Abraham believed God could do according to the promise.  …Perhaps Abraham knew that God’s word was trustworthy, reliable, that God’s Word was as good as done – so faithful is the Lord.

And it is this faith,
this trust,
this belief,
this resting in the promises of God,
this trusting of God’s character…that is reckoned to him as righteousness. 

 

For the law hadn’t yet been revealed to the people of Israel.  Therefore, Abraham had neither followed nor violated these laws of God.  His righteousness was entirely based on faith.

 

And here, Paul makes the point that
because Abraham is made righteous by faith
and not works-
this promise is based on faith, to be guaranteed for all generations, of all people, for all time.

Wow!

This promise of God’s covenant with the people is passed down to all of us
on the basis of faith,
and faith alone. 

 

Thus, our forefather Abraham models for us all a way to God – not based on works, but faith.
And through his faith, we all are now heirs of the promise
– to be in covenantal relationship with God, blessed to be a blessing o’r all the earth –
by faith.

Thanks be to God!!!

 

This whole people-of-God, family-of-God promise
Begins
with a man
who simply
places his trust in God.

He believes God. 

 

What mercy!
What grace to have such a father in faith!
For faith is accessible to us all – no matter our wit or wisdom or experience.
For we can all choose to take God at God’s Word,
to believe God,
to trust that God can and will do all that is promised.

 

Indeed God has come near,
though we could never deserve it!
What love!?!

“For,” as the Psalmist declared,
God “did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted…”
God did not place impossible burdens on our shoulders…
God – our only rightful judge –
chooses mercy,
chooses healing,
chooses grace,
chooses promise,
chooses relationship,
chooses presence,
chooses sacrifice,
chooses forgiveness,
chooses…
to run
…to welcome you, to welcome me
back home, to our truest home…in God!

Halleluia!!!

 

 

 

 

 

PRAYERS

                                                                                    Book of Common Worship

God of our forebears,

as your chosen servant Abraham was given faith to obey your call and go out into the unknown, so may your church be granted such faith

that we may follow you with courage for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.  Amen.

 

Kathleen Fischer

May you face life without illusion,
but with gratitude.
Though you have known tragedy,
may you nonetheless cherish laughter.
May you have an ever clearer sense
of what is important
and what is not.
May your encounters with evil
heighten your appreciation
of what is good.
May you learn to meet death
in a way that leads you to celebrate life.

 

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav,
Poland (1772-1811)

Grant me the ability to be alone.
May it be my custom to go outdoors each day
Among the trees and grasses,
Among all growing things
And there may I be alone,
And enter into prayer
To talk with the one
That I belong to.

“Facing Truth – the First Step”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Isaiah 40:1-5, 10-11
2 Peter 3:8-9
Mark 1:1-8

 

Isaiah 40:1-5, 10-11

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

 …See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
 He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

 

2 Peter 3:8-9

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.

 

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

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These infamous words of scripture, “Comfort, comfort, Oh my people”…they cause my heart to sing, strait away.  I am transported into Handel’s Messiah, just like that.

And famous they should be, because they are gospel!  They are good news!

But what we oft’ fail to notice is the Lord’s discipline, which precedes this voice of glad tidings.  The message of comfort is precisely so entirely comforting BECAUSE it comes on the heals of suffering.  It comes on the heals of sleeping in the beds we’ve made for ourselves.  It comes after we are eating our words, after we have our foots in our mouths, after we are ashamed and exposed.

God’s light reveals truth.  And truth shows both our beauty and our haggardly appearance.  We have both.  And by the rules of this world alone, we are stuck, beholden to our own sins, trapped in the cycles of sin and death, willing to do good but seemingly powerless to do it!

And THIS is the place into which the good news comes. 

 

Amid injustice, amid pain and suffering, amid disconnect, amid dissension,…
Amid othering, amid coldness and cruelty, amid oppression and rampant fear…
Jesus comes,
a little baby.
And the earth breaths a sigh, the heaven’s burst forth, and both near and far God’s inbreaking is on display.

 

In 2 Peter, we are reminded that time is but a moment to God.  What we may perceive as God’s slowness to act, is in fact God’s desire that ALL might be saved.  God is patient – more than any of us can comprehend – for God wills that all might come to repentance and enter into that fullness of life!

And so God WAITs until the fullness of time – until the right time.
AND – to aid those still needing a change of heart, still needing a nudge, still needing to grow in humility, God sends John the Baptist.

 

John the Baptist lives in ways most unconventional.  Some only come to see him in order to gawk.  But he is doing the unsettling work.  He is helping folks connect with their yearning, their need, THE REALITIES OF WHO THEY TRULY ARE, fluorescent lights ON.

No wonder some didn’t like him.
No wonder his life would be cut short by a powerful couple who did not like the truth he’d publicly spoken about them…

He spoke truth to power – bringing the things we hide in the dark, out into the light.

 

For it is in the light, that we may find healing…
IF we do not retreat into darkness: defending ourselves, denying the truth, spinning the facts, controlling the news, cutting off the heads of those who speak what we’re intent on hiding.

Because if we think we have no sin,
the truth is not in us.

And where there is no truth there is no life.

 

Christ has come that we might have life,
and have it to THE FULL. 

The full

 

God is not content with facades.
God is not pleased by our outward shows of holiness.
God is not impressed by our score-keeping:  one-upping one another, judging ourselves by one another (and one another by ourselves). We might as well be arguing over various shades of gray; it’s ALL gray.
We have ALL sinned.
We are ALIKE sinners before a Holy God.

And until we come to that realization, we cannot begin to perceive our need for Christ.
And so God sent John the Baptist. 

 

Now, there are those in your life, and in mine,
who tweak your nerves.
There are those in your life, and in mine,
around whom you behave your worst.
There are those who point out your faults,
whether openly or covertly,
And despite our deep desires to be done with these individuals,

God has promised us blessing THROUGH all things.  God can use these moments, these folks, these circumstances as our teachers, our friends.  Around them, we learn more about ourselves.  Our growing edges are made plain, our sensitivities exposed, our triggers on display.

 

And in this way, we oft’ serve as John the Baptists for one another. 

 

Every moment, every person, every circumstance presents us with a chance:  to lean into reality or to retreat, to accept the world on its own terms or to deny it, to accept one another as they are or to try to control them.  When we allow our God-given feelings – especially those angry, uglier ones – to teach us, we too step into the light.  We too allow ourselves to be exposed, as in fluorescent light.

And we have the opportunity to engage the truths about ourselves, others, and the world; or to hide from them. 

 

But if we trust that God is using all things for good in our lives,
then we begin to look for the lessons, the truths.

If we believe that God has given us our feelings and that they are inherently good,
we can make peace in ourselves and allow them to teach us.

And if we believe that Christ is coming still today,
that God is present and alive today,
then we are ever on watch, ever seeking, ever waiting.

 

 

Who may God have sent into your life to be a John the Baptist?

You may be drawn to them, as were the multitudes who traveled out to the wilderness from the city to be baptized by him.
You may be repulsed by them, and come all that way from the city just to gawk and make fun.
You may feel threatened by them because they expose truth.

 

But God has sent them.
God has allowed them.

And in these circumstances you might rather avoid, God is providing you the chance to prepare the way of the Lord, by listening for God’s voice of truth and turning from sin. 

 

Will we prepare the way of the Lord
…in our hearts?

Will we prepare the way of the Lord
…in our minds?

Will we prepare the way of the Lord
…in our openness, in our listening for God – even in the faces of those who irritate us?

Will we prepare the way of the Lord? 

 

There was a good reason God sent John the Baptist ahead:  we don’t like to admit when we’re wrong, we don’t like to sit with our failures, we don’t like to get real with ourselves or others about our shortcomings, we DO NOT LIKE to change under fluorescent lights.

But when we listen to the voices of John the Baptists,
when we look ourselves over in honesty and truth, in the mirrors of our changing rooms,
we are made ready: 
ready for God-with-us! 

 

So repent! Let us turn from our life-diminishing, truth-denying, sin-sabotaged ways, and prepare the way of Christ, the Lord. 

 

 

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PRAYER                (Psalm 85:8-9a)

Let me hear what You, Lord God, will speak,
for You will speak peace to your people,
to your faithful, to those who turn to You in their hearts.
Surely your salvation is at hand for those who fear you!

“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?”

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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? 

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