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“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. 

“Change My Shame Into Praise”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Luke 3:7-18

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you,
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you[d] in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.[e]
I will remove disaster from you,[f]
so that you will not bear reproach for it.
I will deal with all your oppressors
at that time.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you home,
at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes, says the Lord.

Luke 3:7-18

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.


 

When I read these verses from Luke about John’s ministry to the people in the wilderness, I am a tad perplexed when this chapter wraps up with the words, “So,…he proclaimed the good news to the people.”  It feels wrong.

 

All my life I’ve been hearing this story.  All my life, I’ve heard the good news of Jesus, and honestly, this story of John’s words and ministry does not sound to me like good news.  He proclaims a hard word.  He does not mince words.  He is a strait shooter.

To those who have been swindling others for personal gain, he tells them to stop.  He tells them to curb their own insatiable desire for more and to be content with what they have.  To those who have food and clothing, he commands them to share with those who have none.

When folks come overconfident and haughty – reasoning that they don’t need to worry about their souls because they are children of Abraham & thus heirs to the promises of God – John shoots right through their false sense of security.  Yes, God is faithful, but God also prunes away the branches that do not bear fruit.  The ax lies at the foot of the tree.  And God can raise up descendants of Abraham from the stones of the earth.  In other words, God does not need them in order to be faithful.  If they are unfaithful, God is still faithful, and God will do the work God intends through others.  And indeed God has done this – raising up descendants of Abraham from among the Gentiles – raising up all – whomever they are – who believe in him as children of God, members of the family of God.

 

From the beginning of time, we humans can become complacent.  And when we have known the love and belonging of God, we can take that for granted.  We can think that nothing we do really matters anymore.  But God continues to teach us that what we do DOES matter.

It’s not the kind of mattering that keeps us strung out on a thin thread of good grace.  It’s not the kind of mattering where God threatens to stop loving us, in order to get us to behave

No, it is not the kind of mattering that we’re used to – where grace is extended conditionally, where love is shown with strings attached.  It’s the kind of mattering that says our actions and inactions matter.  We have purpose in the world.  Our lives have consequence.

We matter.

 

And so God is continually inviting us to put the blessing of our lives to do good in this world.  And not to do evil.

 

And so here is John stirring the people out of their false sense of security, out of their complacence, and reminding them that their lives matter.  He implores them to do justice.  He implores them to live rightly, to change their crooked ways and return to God.

IF they are truly returning to God, truly repentant, their lives will bear the fruit of repentance, in justice, in goodness, in mercy, in righteousness.

And John is calling each one to take a hard and honest look at their lives.

 

Are their lives bearing the fruit of repentance?  Or not?

 

God is faithful.  God is sending someone more powerful than John, but will the people be a part of it?  Will they see him when he comes?  Will they receive him when he comes?

Or will they continue in their complacent, blinded, self-righteousness?  Will they persist in sin?  Will they harden their hearts and miss God’s voice, breaking through cloud and space, saying, “this is my Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

Christ is on the way, but the gift of this child will only be received by those who are ready – by the wise men who have watched the night sky and waited and journeyed for this very night – by the shepherds who are staring at the night sky (and not at their phones) and hear the angels of heaven proclaiming the Messiah’s birth – by Anna and Simeon who have waited, trusting God’s word that they would see the Messiah in their lifetimes…

The gift is here for the taking.

But who receives it?

 

We may think that there is nothing to do while we cry out to God to make things right in this world.  We may think that because we are Christians that our eternity is pretty much set & we don’t really need to be concerned with questions of right and wrong.  We may think that God is far more concerned with big ticket sins than with our seemingly small and insignificant lives.

But John is here, reminding us that our lives matter.  Our lives matter.  And that if we are not actively participating in God’s work in the world, we are likely working against it.  God will still be faithful, but we just may miss out.  And he is here, crying out in the wilderness our aimless busyness for us to stop and listen, for us to look ourselves honestly in the mirror.

Do our lives bear the fruit of repentance?

Repentance is a 180 degree turn.  It is a turning away from sin and a turning back toward God.  Repentance is not a way of earning God’s love.  Repentance does not make us holy.  Repentance isn’t our litmus test of holiness.

No, repentance is simply the one thing we can do to be ready for God.  It is the way we open our stubborn selves, again and again, to the Holy One, who loves us with a never-stopping, never-giving-up love.

 

Everyone wants John to give them the magic ticket to eternal security.  Folks want to know what they can DO.  And John points them to the only thing they CAN do, repent.

Repentance does not make things right, but it points us back toward the ONE who makes all things right, the ONE who heals all our infirmities, the ONE who came from heaven as a little babe that we might know the GOD SAVES!

 

As we prepare for Christmas, may we hear again this strait-shooting, wilderness call to look ourselves truthfully in the mirror and to return to God.

 

The Lord of Heaven and Earth awaits, ever yearning to gather us in, to welcome us home and rejoice over us with singing.

You are of great worth to God.

Your life truly matters.

 

May you ever return to God,

repenting and returning,

and may you know the sweet joy of our Lord God,

rejoicing over you with singing,

as God renews you in God’s love

and changes your shame into praise.

 

 

The Good News of God!

 

Let us ready ourselves.

“The Radical, Costly Love of God”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Psalm 104: 1-9, 24, 31-35
Mark 10: 35-45

Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 31-35

Bless the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honor and majesty,
wrapped in light as with a garment.
You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
you set the beams of your[a] chambers on the waters,
you make the clouds your[b] chariot,
you ride on the wings of the wind,
you make the winds your[c] messengers,
fire and flame your[d] ministers.

You set the earth on its foundations,
so that it shall never be shaken.
You cover it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
At your rebuke they flee;
at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.
They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys
to the place that you appointed for them.
You set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth.

O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.

May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
may the Lord rejoice in his works—
who looks on the earth and it trembles,
who touches the mountains and they smoke.
I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
May my meditation be pleasing to him,
for I rejoice in the Lord.
Let sinners be consumed from the earth,
and let the wicked be no more.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
Praise the Lord!

 

Mark 10:35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”


 

Again we find ourselves between juxtaposed images.

In the Kingdoms of the world, those honored are lifted up and, all too often, as Jesus says, they are tyrants over the people.  But Christ’s way is opposite.  Those who want to be great must be a servant, and those who wish to be first must be slave of all.

Now Jesus makes this statement in response to James and John’s request to be seated on Jesus’ right and left in his glory.

Did they know what they were asking of Jesus?  Did they believe Jesus would claim a throne of the world?  Were they vying to secure their authority when he came to power?  Or did they comprehend that Jesus’ Kingdom would transcend this world?  Could they have imagined that Christ’s Kingdom would be won in death and suffering, in Jesus’ pouring himself out as a ransom for many??

It is doubtful they could have seen what was to come – or even began to imagine it.  And Jesus’ response conveys just that: “You do not know what you are asking…”  Not only did they not understand what this Kingdom would be, they also did not realize that those positions could not be granted but only prepared for what appears to be those most deserving.  Putting their request into perspective, Jesus asks them whether or not they can drink the cup that he himself will drink and be baptized with the baptism that Jesus would be baptized.  But continuing in their blind overconfidence, they answer, “We are able.”

Indeed, the disciples James and John cannot comprehend the implications or qualifications of their brazen request.  But Jesus does not shame them.  Rather he seeks to answer their question of how they might advance themselves in God’s Kingdom, reminding them of his own purpose, because Christ’s own life and purpose are the measure, and Christ came to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

 

Now this brings us to our Psalm.  This is a long Psalm, so we didn’t read the whole thing, but there in the final verse there is that uncomfortable line that reads, “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more.”  This kind of prayer in the Psalms, these sung prayers, is not uncommon.  In other Psalms, we read, “Oh God, that you would slay the wicked.”  And taking it much further one Psalmist rejoices in this gruesome and brutal defeat of his enemy writing, “Happy is the one who takes your babies and smashes them against the rocks.”

Now, I am sorry to even speak that Psalm verse.  It is distressing and disturbing.

And these sorts of verses are what have many disillusioned and even disgusted with Christianity.

I will not defend those verses.

But I want to discuss them with you.  Because Christ has changed our entire worldview.  Christ shattered all our understanding of how the world works.  Christ broke open the dividing wall between good and evil, heaven and hell.  When Christ died on that cross, history recorded that the veil between the holiest of holies in the temple and the outer court was torn in two.  More than symbolic, Christ made a way!  Christ bridged the gap!  Christ poured himself out as a ransom for many!

 

And this was a worldview shift.

 

Before, people understood some as good and others as bad.  There were the wicked and the righteous.

Much of our Old Testament texts read this way – black and white – good and evil.

And while good and evil are real, Christ’s teachings to us revealed to our darkened minds that no one is without sin.  No one does good.  No one is righteous.

 

Only Christ.  Only Jesus.

And so for all this talk of good and evil, there is no way to wholly be on the side of good, without Christ’s ransom.

But people were and are desperate to be rid of the ravages of sin and evil.  We are desperate to overcome our societal and personal sins.  We are desperate to be rid of evil-doers.  We are tired of the loss of life.  We are tired of exploitation and oppression.  We are distressed that bad things seem to happen to good people!  We are weary with the blaming.  We are weary with the bickering.  We are weary from the pointing of the finger.

We yearn for justice!  We yearn for wholeness!!!  We yearn for eternal life – meaning that QUALITY of life that makes our lives worth living!!!

And we are not unlike those who came before Christ.

But without Christ’s bridging of this divide, individual and society imagination could not conceive that God would care about the wicked, much less come to save them and give his own life as a ransom for them!  This was inconceivable.

And so folks yearning for justice and life and healing, prayed the prayers they could imagine:  “Kill the wicked,” “Let the wicked be no more,” and “I’ll be so happy when my enemies and their children are dust and I don’t have to keep looking over my shoulder anymore!”  Limiting God to their own imaginations, they prayed that God would do the only thing they could imagine – getting rid of evil-doers – wiping them out so evil would be no more.

And God, who encourages us to pour out our hearts before the throne of grace, heard these prayers.

 

Was it the kind of hearing that automatically grants a wish?

Absolutely not.

Was it the kind of hearing that does whatever is asked without regard for the other?

Absolutely not.

Scripture has made it clear that ALL are made and beloved by God.  Christ said that he came in order that all might come to knowledge of the truth – not just some.

 

God loves all.  Christ came for all.

 

And that was a major worldshift.  God cares for all.

 

But this was exactly what we all needed.  Despite our efforts to do good, we were sinners too.  Despite our good intentions, we sinned blindly and ignorantly.  And we needed a God who would see past our checkered reality and love us anyway.

NOT condoning sin 

NOT excusing sin

But loving us WHILE we were sinners and calling us to a better way…

 

Christ condemned sin WHILE loving the sinner.

 

And that is life to us all – to all who will receive it!

 

I am glad that we are a people who think for ourselves and question the kind of passages like these from the Psalms that seem so heartless or violent.  Let us also keep in mind that we are able to IMAGINE other ways because of Christ, of whom our Old Testament ancestors did not have the benefit of knowing when they wrote these words.

But nonetheless, in these Psalmist’s angry and sometimes small words, we can relate to their cries for justice.  And we know that we are not alone in our wishing for evil to come to our enemies.

 

But in Christ we are shown another way.

No one is beyond Christ’s reach, not even the most hardened.

And so may we,

in our living

and our relationships

and in our communities

and in our policies,

remember that Christ came to save sinners, and that we are all sinners, except by the ransom of our Lord Jesus Christ, who came that ALL might be saved and come to knowledge of the truth.

As James and John’s ambitions were redirected to find their stature beside the measure of Christ’s own life, so may our lives take their shape and purpose from Christ’s.  For we are the light of the world and the salt of this earth AS MUCH AS we are indeed following after Christ in our day by day lives.

 

How often do we, still today, wish for the destruction of our enemies?  How often are we fantasizing of another’s downfall?  What delight do we take in retribution?  As easy as it is to point the finger, we need to get honest with ourselves about our own secret desires and prayers.

Christ – who ALONE is without sin and has every right to be angry and every right to condemn us – Christ chose the radical and costly path of love and forgiveness.

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.

Following after our Lord Jesus Christ,

may we too

choose

the radical and costly path

of love and forgiveness

Not living as those in darkness – failing to comprehend the expansive love of God –

But living as children of the light

And working and praying that ALL might be saved

And come to knowledge of the truth.

 

Thanks be to God for the radical, incredible, costly love of God for us, in Christ Jesus!