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“Greater Works Than These”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Acts 9:36-43
John 14:12-14

 

Acts 9:36-43

Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

John 14:12-14

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”


 

Just last Sunday, we read about how Peter, having just been through an emotional marathon following Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection, has retreated to the sea to fish and has led 6 other disciples in doing the same.  This fishing expedition doesn’t go well.  They catch nothing, but the risen Christ meets them on the shoreline with hot fish and warm bread, strait from the fire.  The whole encounter ends with Jesus repeatedly asking Peter whether or not Peter loves him.  Each time Peter says, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you,” but each time Jesus responds by saying “Feed/Tend my sheep.”

It seems as though Jesus is trying to break through the disconnect between Peter’s affections and his actions.  Peter feels love for Christ, but his actions are less that of a disciple and more reflective of the man he used to be, before he met Christ.  Jesus is challenging Peter to live his love and devotion in service to others – not returning to his former life but continuing his discipleship by the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

So in today’s passage, we finally see Peter DOING the work of a disciple of Christ.  In fact this story, along with several other stories of Peter and the early church, neatly reflects stories that came out of Jesus’ life.  Just as Jesus raised a girl from the dead, so Peter raises this faithful disciple from death.  Just as Jesus heals a paralytic man, so Peter heals a paralyzed man.  Peter is DOING the work of discipleship!

This Peter, who was once looking wistfully back at the fishing life, is now all in.

And I find this very encouraging.

 

We know that Peter was not an educated man.  Luke reports that the religious leaders of the day found Peter ordinary – such that they were amazed as how he taught them with authority and performed deeds of power among the people.  Peter was an ordinary guy.  He was rash and a bit impulsive.  He liked to fish naked, and the sea was a source of comfort to him.  He spoke before he thought.  He couldn’t always follow through with his intentions.  When Jesus was in custody before his eventual crucifixion, Peter denies Jesus 3 times, in order to save his own skin.

And it is this Peter who Christ calls and uses to spread the Good News of Great Joy.

This Peter.

 

Though he has failed over and over, Jesus lovingly pursues him, and keeps calling Peter to follow.  Now, Peter’s words and his actions are finally starting to match.  Peter’s faith is finally taking shape in works.  He chooses to leave Christ’s presence, not just a hearer but a doer.  Peter chooses to tend the sheep – to shepherd God’s people, to lead others in doing good and not in turning back.

 

In the Gospel of John we heard these words of Jesus:  “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If in my name you ask me[e] for anything, I will do it.”

Jesus is explaining that we will do greater things than he did – precisely because Jesus will be with God, hearing our prayers and giving us what we ask.

This is hard to believe.  It sounds too genie-in-a-bottle for us.  It sounds too anecdotal to be true.  And yet, in the person of Peter, we see an ordinary person doing extraordinary things, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

And I would assert that God is calling you and I to do great things by the power of the Spirit.

 

Do you look around and think – we need a miracle!

Do you look around and think – how can we begin to fix the messes we are making?!

Does each new grim report simply pile onto your already-mounting-stack of tragedies-with-no-answers?

 

Well, good.

Perhaps God has made you, for such a time as this.

Perhaps God is using you to do even greater works by the power of the Spirit…

Perhaps God has given you eyes to see the mess, so you can be a part of the solution.

After all, Christ said we will do greater things than he did!

 

We are not alone.  God is not finished with us yet.  There is more to this world than we can see or perceive.  And Christ is still at work, doing miracles, turning tables, raising the dead, healing the sick.  Christ hears our prayers.

 

We do not pretend to control God.

We do not pretend to understand why God acts and does not act, why God heals some and not others.  We do not pretend to know why some suffer all their lives and others seem to walk such an easy road.

And yet,

Paul encourages us to pray without ceasing.  “Cast all your cares upon the Lord, for God cares for you.”  And “the prayers of the righteous are powerful and effective,” scripture reminds us.

 

Therefore,

in all things,…

as we face enormous obstacles to justice and equity,

as we stare down the mountains between us and where we need to go

as we face off against the darkness within ourselves and one another,

May we remember that Christ, who raised Lazarus from the dead, lives in you and in me.

May we remember that the One who made heaven and earth and fashioned you and me has called us precious and beloved.

May we remember that there is more to this life than we can see.

And may we call on Christ,

Interceding on behalf of our brothers and sisters,

Crying out to God in the face of injustice,

Sharing what we have with one another,

…..DOING the work of discipleship. 

 

Who knows what mighty work Christ may do,

in you and in me!

 

“Extraordinary Mercy. Surprising Grace.”

Katherine Todd
Micah 6:6-8
Luke 6:27-38

 

Micah 6:6-8

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

 

Luke 6:27-38

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”


 

 

This scripture is hard.  It sounds all nice and fine, …until you consider what it might mean to live it out.

Is Jesus actually wanting us to become doormats to injustice, enablers of evil? 

Growing up in the South, I was immersed in Bible-belt culture.  From that experience, I carry many blessings and many curses.  All cultures carry in them beauty and sin.  Southern Bible-belt culture in America is no different.

It was verses like these that reinforced a very passive way of being.  Women were supposed to be meek and quiet.  We were supposed to go along and get along.  I became masterful and accommodating others and making excuses for them.

 

So this instruction to allow someone who’s taken from you to take even more…

It falls right in line with my upbringing, as a woman raised in the south.

Instead of being raised with boundaries, I was raised to say “Yes” to most any request.

Now, there were the forbidden behaviors.  There were things I was not supposed to try or experience, but I was always supposed to be ready to help out.  I was always supposed to give more, be more, try more…

Raised in my mother’s home, we were always at church.  We were often the last to leave.  If something needed doing, we did it.  If someone was working, we joined them.

 

We were not raised to ask the questions:

What do I need?  or

How am I doing? 

 

These questions were seen as selfish.

We were supposed to put God and others first.

Attention to self, in the least, was vain at best and selfish at worst.

 

So reading this verses as a child, I used to imagine myself being robbed:

    “If they take my purse, should I offer them my car keys?…” 

    “Should I reassure them that I wouldn’t pursue or prosecute them?…” 

 

Part of me liked this.

It shows great compassion to look out for another ahead of oneself.

 

The other part of me couldn’t solve how one could live in this world with behavior like this.

How could I give away everything and be okay?

 

 

So as you can imagine, I had a lot of growing up to do.  I had to learn that it was not selfish but essential and, in fact, holy to look out for myself.  I had to learn that I could not give to others in my emptiness.  I had to learn to treat myself with the same compassion with which I would treat others.

And all this growth was pressing against the borders of what I’d understood this scripture to read.  Was standing up for myself wrong?  Was seeking justice wrong?  Was I to allow my abuser to take more?

 

And I came smack up against the realization that not all advise is for everyone in every season of life.  It’s part of the wisdom and wonder of the Bible; there is so much there, contradicting and at times divergent; something for everyone, in every season.  But we must allow room for each person to listen for God’s Words to them, through the scripture.

 

If someone is sinking, you do not push them down

If someone is floating away, you don’t blow a little breeze to give them more velocity.

 

No, to the sinking one, you give them a hand up.

And to the one about to float away, you grab a hold of them and pull them back down.

 

These opposite circumstances call for opposite responses.  What’s loving in one circumstances would be evil in the other.  This is not one-size-fits-all.  And the same applied to the Bible.

 

What I needed was to learn to love and to listen to myself.  I needed to learn that I couldn’t love others without first loving myself.  I needed to seek justice and speak out.

I was an example of someone who’d taken Jesus’ instructions out of context and missed the point.  And it wasn’t just me on my own, but the whole culture I was raised in that had turned some of Jesus’ instructions into prisons that held some down and twisted many up inside.

 

I had a lot of unlearning to do.  I needed to sort through my cultural inheritance – to determine which was healthy and whole and which was destructive.

 

Paul encourages us in the New Testament to let our words and actions be for the building up of one another.  But I had been routinely tearing down myself.

Micah 6:8 is beloved and quoted often:  Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.  But I was slow to do justice, and quick to love mercy.  Instead of speaking out against injustice and speaking out for myself, I allowed evils to continue and to take root in those who were quick to take advantage of those more passive, like my childhood self.

Jesus instructs the woman caught in adultery to go and sin no more, but I thought that turning the other cheek meant turning a blind eye to sins against me.  Instead of saying, “No more,” or “Sin no more” I thought forgiveness meant I had to give endless second chances and continue to put myself in compromising situations.

 

Now if you were raised more in the school of the world than in southern Bible-belt culture, all of this may sound absurd.  But if you were raised in some of this culture, I imagine you may have experienced the way Scripture was sometimes wielded as a way of keeping others down.  I imagine you have felt the pains of being twisted up inside by one isolated line of scripture, to the exclusion of all other verses.

And I so I entreat all of us, to be mindful that we read Scripture with an eye for the details but while keeping our peripheral vision.  Scripture is to be read and heard, in conversation with other scriptures.

 

And so now, I can read this verse and begin to hear Jesus’ call for us to not to rush to litigation.  I can hear Jesus’ call for us to crack open our hearts in compassion.  I can hear Christ’s invitation to surprise those who deserve punishment with unexpected, undeserved grace and mercy.  I hear Christ’s reminder that none of us are without sin.  I hear Christ’s invitation to treat others with the same mercy and grace, forgiveness and kindness that I have received from God.

Rather than pushing me into a position of self-harming giving.  I am more and more able to hear these words of Jesus reminding us not to demonize one another, but to rise up from evil and sin, confronting it with blessing and goodness – praying for those who abuse us, blessing those who curse us.  And I do not hear these verses in isolation, but remember Jesus’ prophetic voice in times of evil, Jesus’ voice of truth in times of falsehood, Jesus’ call to righteous actions and just living.

 

I do not believe Jesus is asking us to be a doormat here.  Christ led by example, withdrawing from the crowd who never stopped asking him for more, and spending time alone, in rest and prayer.  Even Christ ate and drank and slept during some storms.  Even Christ, drew boundaries on where he would and wouldn’t minister, saying he was called first to the children of Israel.  Even Christ, asked the comfort of friends in his darkest hours of fear and doubt.

 

And so let us hear these words of Christ, and remember that we are called to be unique in this world.  We have been shown extraordinary mercy.  We’ve been given grace upon grace.

 

May we be a people who like Jesus protect and say “No more” to sin.

May we be a people who work toward justice and healing, turning aside from the desires for revenge.

May we be a people who show the love, forgiveness, and forbearance God has shown us.

May we be a people who surprise – offering a hand up, when every fairness would understand if we instead threw a stone.

May we be a people who have received and therefore give

…extraordinary mercy and surprising grace. 

“Keep Alert. The Expectant Shall See.”

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.


 

So much surrounding Jesus’ birth is extra-ordinary.

A virgin birth.

An unwed mother still engaged, though her child is not his own.

A girl, the chosen one, from the no-good, backwater town of Nazareth.

Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, pregnant with John, after a lifetime of barrenness.

Elizabeth’s husband Zephaniah made mute until his firstborn and only child John is born.

Angel visitations – to Mary, to Zephaniah, and to Joseph in a dream.

The first-ever world census, it says.

A star directly over the barn, where Jesus is born.

The wise men who study the stars and travel from other kingdoms to pay homage to Jesus.

The glorious host of angels alerting the shepherds to the Christ-child.

A holy child wrapped in mere bands of cloth – not a blanket – and lying in a feed trough.

 

Here the long-awaited Messiah is born and who comes but the foreigners,

The social outsiders – shepherds who spent more time with animals than with other people.

 

It says Mary pondered all these things in her heart.

And as she should!  Because WHO could have foreseen this bizarre series of events?

Who would have guessed those whom God would call to witness this great act of God – the outsiders, the unclean, the foreigners…ALL people God’s chosen were taught to keep their distance from.

 

But WHO is ready?

Is it the people of Israel?

 

Certainly it is not the people of Bethlehem who have relegated this very expectant mother to the animal barn.

 

No.  Foreigners are among the first to see.

And among their own people, it is not all the well-dressed,

The put together,

The wealthy,

The well-connected, no.

Shepherds.  The smelly shepherds.  Those whose work keeps them on the fringes.  Those who are not clean or presentable.

These are among the first to hear and see.

 

And WHY did they see?

Could it be because they were open and available?

Could it be because their socially isolating work required that they be open and ready, listening and waiting, on guard for the sheep – alert to any change or danger?  Could it be because they were among the few lying on their backs under the open stars?

 

 

For those who are paying attention, there is so much to witness, so much to see and hear, extraordinary happenings!

There is so much to ponder in one’s heart.

 

But those who witness,

Who hear and see,

They are the expectant.

The expectant are witness to this extraordinary in-breaking of Mystery into our world, the Son of God, born a tiny babe to a virgin, wrapped in scraps of cloth, and lying in a feed trough.

Those who hear and see are the expectant, the alert, the watching and listening and waiting ones.

 

 

How vigilant are you to protect and preserve moments of waiting,

Moments of listening,

Moments of openness and expectancy,

In your day by seemingly-ordinary-day life?

 

This tiny babe, is still breaking into our lives, in extra-ordinary ways.

The watching ones.  The waiting ones.  The seeking ones.

The expectant ones SEE.  Halleluia!

 

Our Lord is here.

Do we see?